The stories of these five women show us how they reimagined their adult lives, and how their early years shaped how they grew into public figures.
DURGABAI DESHMUKH (1901-1981)
Durgabai, a child bride, later parted ways with her husband Subba Rao. “When I grew up to the age of fifteen I realised the significance of marriage… I told [my father] that I would tell Subba Rao… that I could not accept him as [my] husband, and that I would be prepared to give him in writing to that effect. I also told (Subba Rao) that he could marry any girl he liked…,” she wrote in her autobiography. After his death, she supported his widowed second wife – Timmaiamma, who not only lived with Durgabai, but also underwent vocational training at Durgabai’s urging. Durgabai herself studied law so that she could give women free legal aid and assist them to defend themselves. As one of the chairpersons of the Constituent Assembly, Durgabai moved almost 750 amendments to the Constitution. The Department of Women’s Studies at Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, is named after Durgabai Deshmukh.
RAJKUMARI AMRIT KAUR (1889-1964)
Amrit Kaur fought passionately against child marriage under the aegis of the All India Women’s Conference. She was the first woman to hold a Cabinet rank in independent India. Lady Irwin College in Delhi and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) owe their existence to her.
Born Princess Amrit Kaur of Kapurthala, the only girl among seven children, she was an Oxford alumnus, co-framed the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties, and strongly advocated for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). A gifted pianist and tennis player, she re-imagined her personal life by choosing to stay away from marriage and motherhood.
“Rajkumari was such an ardent believer in women’s role in public life that she did not even hesitate to criticise Pandit Nehru on this issue,” writes Aruna Asaf Ali in reference to a 1936 controversy when Nehru, while composing the working committee of the Congress, included the names of a number of socialists but not of a single woman.
DAKSHAYANI VELAYUDHAN (1912-1978)
Her daughter Meera Velayudhan, a policy analyst and supporter of the movement for entry of women into Sabarimala, remembers that Dakshayani’s speeches in the Constituent Assembly foreshadowed Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which forbids discrimination of any kind. In one of her debates in the Constituent Assembly in 1946, she said, “I submit that a Constituent Assembly not only frames a Constitution but also gives the people a new framework for life. To… renew a people on a new foundation requires the synthetic vision of a planner…what we want is not all kinds of safeguards … what we want is the immediate removal of our social disabilities.”
One of her Constituent Assembly speeches in 1948 clearly highlights Dakshayani’s politics and women’s fragile position in the newly formed public space. Dakshayani was narrating an incident from her college days: “While I was a student…one of my classmates approached me for subscribing to a fund for the abolition of untouchability. My reply was, ‘you people are responsible for this and therefore it is for you to raise the money and it is not proper that you should ask me for money.’” While passionately raising important questions on casteism, she was infamously cut short by the Vice President of the Constituent Assembly HC Mookherjee, who told her that she had exceeded her time limit, and that he had let her continue “only because you are a lady”.
MUTHULAKSHMI REDDY (1886-1968)
Muthulakshmi Reddy led the agitation for women’s enfranchisement as the Deputy President of the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. She also introduced a scheme of free education for girls up to Class Eight. As the Founder-President of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), Muthulakshmi fought to raise the age of marriage for girls, women’s right to property and played a crucial role in the passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929.
Despite being a bright student, Muthulakshmi Reddy had to do her schooling from home and fight for her higher education. She topped her Intermediate exams, refused to get married and instead wanted to be doctor. The first girl student in her college, she finally did marry at twenty-eight, an exceptionally late age for those times. Facing social ostracism because her mother Chandrammal was a Devadasi before her marriage, Muthulakshmi Reddy later became one of the prime movers against the Devadasi system.
PHOOLAN DEVI (1963-2001)
Phoolan was married off at the age of 11 to a 45-year-old widower in exchange for a cow and bicycle. She left her husband, returned home twice, had relationships outside marriage and came to be known as a promiscuous woman. As a bandit, she was kidnapped and gang-raped for several weeks by high-caste leadership in the gang. Phoolan surrendered after being wanted for several cases of murder, kidnapping and looting. She spent a decade in prison, and was subsequently elected to her first term in India’s Parliament.
The legend of Phoolan Devi as a dacoit often overshadows her life as a parliamentarian. Writer Katie Presley summarises this perception: “As a Parliamentarian, she fought for women’s rights, she fought for women’s rights, an end to child marriage, and the rights of India’s poor. In a Che Guevara-type revision of history, though, Devi is remembered as a romantic Robin Hood figure, robbing the rich to help the poor, and not as a politician working to enact structural change in India’s social hierarchies.”