The Forgotten Women Leaders of India

Posted on May 17, 2010 in Society

Sampa Kundu:

India is a country of great leaders, both men and women. The women leaders in India are diverse in terms of their personality, and their contribution to education, politics, women empowerment and social welfare is neither limited nor forgettable. Here, I am trying to pay a tribute to those women whose intelligence, efforts and deeds have made India proud.

Pandita Ramabai

Pandita Ramabai, known as ‘Saraswati’ (Goddess of Wisdom), was born at a forest in Western Maharashtra in 1858. Her father, Ananta Shastri was a learned Brahmin and a supporter of women’s education. He decided to educate his wife, Lakshmi Bai and in consequence, they had to leave their village due to the opposition against them put forth by the conformist village heads. Ananta Shastri and his wife started living in a forest where Pandita Ramabai and her younger brother were born. Following the death of their parents in the famine of 1877, both siblings decided to take up their father’s agenda of advocating women’s education. Pandita Ramabai’s fame bought her to Bengal where she was recognized as ‘Saraswati’ for her insight and eloquence.

Pandita Ramabai

She married a Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Medhvi who was a Sudra, resulting in an inter-caste as well as an inter-religious marraige as Pandita Ramabai was a converted Christian. They planned to open a school for child widows. But before anything could be done, Pandita Ramabai lost her husband in 1882.
Thereafter, Ramabai moved to Pune and founded Arya Mahila Samaj. She was the one who advocated the appointment of women inspectors in schools and admission of women students in medical colleges, as women in those days’ India could only be treated by female doctors.

In 1886, she went to America where an association was formed to fund her dream school for child widows. In 1889, she established a home-cum-school, in the then Bombay, for child widows and it was named Sharada Sadan. As Ramabai was a Christian, some conventionalists feared that she would preach Christianity in her school. Forcefully, Ramabai moved her school to Pune. There she also formed a self-sufficient farm called Mukti Sadan where trainings were given on dairy and poultry, gardening, laundry, sewing, weaving, embroidery etc. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, providing housing, education, vocational training, and medical services to the needy.
Pandita Ramabai breathed her last in 1922.

Swarnakumari Devi

Swarnakumari Devi was the fourth daughter of renowned Bengali personality, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Swarnakumari was Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister. She was born in 1856 and married at 13, under the Brahmo marriage rites.


Swarnakumari was a fine novelist. In all, she wrote around 25 Bengali books including Chinnamukul, Phuler Mela to name some. She was a pioneer woman novelist among her contemporaries.
She became the chief editor of Bharti, a monthly family journal in 1884.

In 1886, she formed Sakhi Samiti to get the aristocrat women together and involve themselves in social welfare. The Samiti helped orphans and widows by providing them education and self-sufficiency. They organized Annual Mahila Silpamela (women art and craft fair) where handicrafts made by women were exhibited and sold.

At the 1890 Congress Session, Swarnakumari was elected as a representative from Bengal. In 1927, she was awarded the Jagattarini Gold Medal by the University of Calcutta. In 1929, she became the president of Bangiya Sahitya Sammelan.

The lady with a vast career in literature, politics, social welfare and women’s emancipation died in 1932.

Sarala Debi Chaudhurani

Sarala Debi, the daughter of Swarnakumari Devi, was born in 1872. She studied in Bethune School and later in Bethune College, Kolkata.

Sarala Debi Chaudhurani

She became the editor of Bharti in 1895. Through Bharti, she organized a physical culture campaign asking young men to learn self defence for themselves and their wives against molestation by British soldiers in the streets and stations. She mobilized her friends and relatives to take a vow that they would sacrifice their lives for the country’s independence. In 1903, she opened an academy of martial arts at which jiu-jitsu and fencing were taught.

She trained a group to sing the Bande Mataram at the Congress held at Kolkata in 1904. It created history.

Followed by her marriage in 1905, Sarala Debi moved to Lahore where she found Bharat Stree Mahamandal to spread female education. They used to appoint teachers who taught girls and women in nearby provinces by visiting their homes. The organization also organized centers where handicrafts made by women were sold out.

Sarala Debi died in 1946.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Born in 1903, the beautiful woman, Kamaladevi was widowed as a child. Her second marriage was to Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who was the brother of Sarojini Naidu.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

In 1921, she joined the non-cooperation movement and the Congress too. In 1926, she stood in the elections from Mangalore, her native place. Though defeated by a narrow margin, she became an icon for the youth who admired her immensely.

She was one of the founding members of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1926 and set up its branches across India. In 1929, she went to Prague to represent AIWC at the International Congress of the Women’s League.
In 1930, she resigned from AIWC to become a regular and active member in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

She was arrested thrice by the British administration. But, she never gave up her dedication for the country and its freedom.

She passed away in 1990.

Aruna Asaf Ali

Aruna Gangulee was born in an orthodox Hindu Bengali family in 1906. Her career started at Kolkata in Gokhale Memorial School. She married M. Asaf Ali, a man 23 years her senior.

Aruna Asaf Ali

Aruna Asaf Ali was deeply involved in the salt Satyagraha movement. She was arrested by the police but not as a political prisoner. Resultantly, when other political prisoners were released after the Gandhi-Irwin pact she was not freed. After a public agitation demanding her release, she was finally liberated by the British.

She was an active member of the Quit India movement. Later, she came to be known as the ‘Grand Old Lady of the Independence Movement’.

In 1954, Aruna helped to set up the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), the women wing of the Communist Party of India.

She was awarded the Nehru award for International Understanding in 1992.

We lost this great leader in 1995.

(Source: Kumar, Radha (1993), The History of Doing: Kali for Women, New Delhi)

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz