Because of British colonization, women’s rights were nonexistent in 19th century India; women were largely confined to domestic roles and were not allowed to receive an education. Despite such patriarchal restrictions, Savitribai Phule, an Indian teacher, and feminist, established the first school for girls in India in 1848 with the help of her husband, Jyotirao Phule. Savitribai’s trailblazing in women’s education is a testament to the resilience of feminists.
Like most other married Indian women, Savitribai was not literate at the time of her marriage at age nine. After being educated by her husband and his friends, Savitribai enrolled herself in training programs for teachers at two institutions, the Normal School and an institution in Ahmednagar.
Later, she began to teach alongside Sagunabai, another revolutionary Indian feminist. Eventually, the Bhides and Sagunabai founded their own school at Bhide Wada, the home of Tatya Saheb Bhide, a man who was inspired by the work of the trio.
During this time, education was limited to male Brahmins (a caste) and involved the teachings of the Vedas and Shastras. Savitribai’s school was unique in that it taught mathematics, science, and social studies instead of Hindu texts. It was also open to people of all castes, including women.
However, not everyone supported Savitribai’s endeavors; Savitribai would carry an extra sari with her to school because people would hurl stones and dirt at her while she was walking. By educating people of lower castes and women, Savitribai was radically changing the status quo. Knowledge is power, so her work empowered hundreds of people from historically marginalized communities in India.
After being kicked out of their house by her husband’s father for their work in the community, the Phules lived with Usman Sheikh and his sister, Fatima Sheikh. Fatima is known as the first Muslim female teacher of India and opened a school alongside Savitribai. Their friendship exemplified feminist sisterhood and empowerment.
Outside of her educational accomplishments, Savitribai was also a staunch feminist and poet. She authored two notable collections of poetry, Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892. Through her writing, she was able to encourage people from marginalized communities to break free from the chains of oppression by getting an education.
Later, she founded multiple organizations to raise awareness for women’s rights, infanticide, and caste-based violence. The Mahila Seva Mandal forged gatherings between women of all castes and encouraged all of the women to sit together on the same mat. In her house, she created the House for the Prevention of Infanticide as a safe space for widowed Brahmin women to deliver their babies and leave them there under her care. At the same time, she campaigned against child marriage and lobbied for widow remarriage.
After her husband’s death, Savitribai chaired a session for the Satyashodhak Samaj, an organization that serves the interests of non-Brahmins. At this time, a woman chairing an organization was unprecedented and revolutionary. Through these efforts, Savitribai also initiated the first Satyashodkah marriage, which is a marriage without a dowry, Brahmin priests, or Brahminical rituals.
Savitribai also founded a clinic to take care of patients with the bubonic plague. She passed away in 1897 while taking care of a patient with the bubonic plague in the clinic. While she passed away more than a century ago, her legacy is honored annually in Maharastra on January 3rd, known as Balika Din (Day of Girls).
Balika Din is a holiday dedicated to educating people about legislation that protects young girls and is dedicated to the welfare of young girls in India. Women are still actively discriminated against in India through sexual assault, sex-selective abortions, and patriarchal gender roles. Savitribai’s work was the first step towards promoting gender equality in modern India.
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