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Women Who Were Ahead Of Their Time: 5 Early Feminists In India

Posted: September 12, 2015
Here we list five early feminists of India; women who fought for equality long before feminism became a buzz word. 
Let me start this piece with a question? Name the first person who comes to your mind when I say the word feminist. Now another one, someone who was seen as ahead of their time. One more. Hopefully that was an inspiring exercise. Here are some more feminists with inspiring stories. This list is in no way an exhaustive or representative list. So take a moment and tell us in the comments section who we should add to this.

Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam was a writer and poet and wrote wonderfully in both Hindi and Punjabi. She was the only child of her parents and her father was a school teacher and poet. Her work reflected the trauma and tragedies of the partition as well as evolved with a more feminist perspective over the years. She was a bold writer, who produced over 100 books such as Pinjar  that continue to inspire people till today as well as poetry such as I Call Upon Varis Shah Today. She was the first woman to win a Sahitya Akademi Award and later also won the  Bharatiya Jnanpith literary award. She also received the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in India.

Savitribai Phule

Savitribai Phule was a poet and social reformer, who worked for women’s rights while India was under British rule. Along with her husband, she founded the first school for women, located in Pune and taught as well. She was an outspoken critic of caste discrimination and other social evils that existed in society. She also worked to provide services to pregnant women and children who were orphaned as well as treat victims of plague.

Sarala Devi Chaudharani

Sarala Devi Chaudharani founded the Bharat Stree Mahamandal, considered to be the first women’s organization in India with branches in multiple cities. The aim of the organization was to promote education for girls, running counter to the prevailing trends in society. She was one of the few women graduates of her time as well as a political leader in Bengal.

Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Naidu is a familiar name and is often cited in textbook as The Nightingale of India. She is known for both her resonant poetry as well as outspoken activist work for India’s independence. She was the first woman governor of an Indian state as well as the first woman president of Indian National Congress. Her marriage to her husband was outside her caste, an uncommon practice in those times. She helped establish Indian Women’s Association and traveled widely to give talks and lectures. Her family members were also educators, poets, activists and revolutionaries.

Tarabai Shinde

Tarabai Shinde, who was an activist and author, is known for her text ‘A Comparison Between Men and Women’ , thought of as one of the first feminist texts. It was and continues to be controversial for questioning religion and scriptures. She was a strong critic of patriarchal practices as well as caste-based systems. She was known to be fluent in English, Hindi, Marathi as well as Sanskrit, which was considered exceptional and unusual in those times for a woman. She was also involved in promoting girls education.
Who else can you think of?
Cover images via Wikipedia

I think of myself as a feminist development practitioner with a strong interest in issues

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  1. It is Savitribai Phule…!!!

  2. interesting read Shruti! I liked to read about women who were ahead of time. I would also suggest if you could add date and time when these women were born, and what was different in them than their counterparts. It will give readers an understanding of your selection list, and based on which criteria they can add other women in the same list. Just a thought 🙂

    Lots of love,

  3. Yashaswini Kadam -

    It’s not ‘Saviti Phule’, it’s ‘SAVITRI Phule’. One would expect you to get the names of these great women right, you know 🙁

  4. Yashaswini and Prachi, I apologize for the error and we’ll have it fixed soon.

  5. And if you could kindly print the names of the women under their respective pictures it will be great. I could recognize Smt.Sarojini Naidu.
    Thank you and have a wonderful day.

  6. The name of Begum Rokeya needs to be in the list.

  7. Pandita Ramabai.

  8. hameeda hossain -

    quratul ain haider a feminist writer wrote a moving novel on partition. she went to pakistan but moved back to india. roqaiya sakhawat promoted Muslim women’s education in bengal and resisted purdah

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