By Sudakshina Kundu Mookerjee
The University of London opened its doors to women in June 1868. Switzerland was the only German speaking country where women were allowed to enrol at the University, way back in 1840s while the rest of the German speaking nations denied University education to women till early twentieth century. When this was the state of education for women even in the so-called advanced nations of the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century, it is no wonder that the women in India were languishing behind barred doors. Ram Mohan Roy questioned this unfair treatment meted out to the fair sex and led a war against all social and religious oppressions against women of India. His life was short as he met with an untimely death in England. But before he left for the foreign shores he had succeeded in leaving behind a legacy and many of his followers who came after him took up this noble task on their shoulders. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the champion of women’s education. Keshab Chandra Sen and his firebrand followers were keen on educating the young girls. But such education was perhaps planned to educate the female mind and not sufficient to broaden their horizons beyond the domestic walls. If Indian women have been truly emancipated to spread their wings and become empowered to share the arena equally with their male counterparts, the credits are due to the tireless efforts of stalwarts like Dwarkanath Ganguly (1844 – 1898) of Bengal and Jyotirao Govindrao Phule (1827-1890) of Maharashtra and few others.
Women in India had been living an extremely deprived existence. Most were unlettered as superstitions were widespread that a literate woman was sure to become a widow. Many other repressions had kept all chances of improvement of the mind of the girl child at bay. Where irrational beliefs pervaded how could the scientific spirit be kindled? It is true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. So it is not surprising that the children brought up by ignorant and superstitious mothers would make the society dogmatic and irrational.
However, amongst such gloom, rays of hope shone. We will now discuss about the first stirring of the rational spirit among the women of India and their endeavour at paving out a way for those who came after them.
Let us begin with the first two women doctors of India – Anadibai Gopal Joshi, the first Indian woman to earn a medical qualification and Kadambini Ganguly, the first practicing doctor of India who earned her medical qualifications a few months after Anandibai Joshi.
Anandibai Gopal Joshi (31 March 1865 – 27 February 1887) was the first woman to earn a two-year medical diploma from Women’s Medical College, Pensylvania in 1886. She was born in a family of landlords in Maharashtra and was named Yamuna by her parents. She was married at the tender age of nine to Gopal Joshi, a postal clerk, who remaned her Anandi. He was so keen to educate his young wife that his enthusiasm often proved a little over-bearing for his young bride. After Anandi lost her first born child at the age of fourteen she resolved to become a doctor, an extremely impossible dream in those days. Gopal Rao supported his wife and she won several benefactors who helped her go to the USA at the age of nineteen to study at the Women’s Medical College. She earned her diploma after two years but her health suffered greatly. She adhered strictly to her Indian ways of life which affected her physical well being. After returning to India she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and passed away on February 1887 before she could put her training to practice.
If Anandi was a child bride in a conservative family who strove to achieve her dream supported ably by her husband, Kadambini Ganguly (nee Bose) born on 18th July 1861, was the daughter of a Brahmo reformer Braja Kishore Basu, and was fortunate to be born in a more enlightened family. However, that did not make her journey any smoother as she had to fight against the prejudices of a male dominated education system. Her husband Dwarkanath was her pillar of strength and support. He fought a raging battle against the authorities to open the doors of the University of Calcutta to women in 1878. Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Basu were the first two women graduates in 1882 and were awarded the degrees in the convocation held in 1883. Kadambini was keen to study medicine but the medical college of Calcutta was not ready to take women as students. It was Dwarkanath’s unrelenting struggle that finally yielded the results and Kadambini, by then married to him, was admitted to Calcutta Medical College in 1884. Her teachers were not favourably disposed to the presence of a woman in a male dominated world and she was not allowed to clear a paper for which she could not earn the MB degree. Instead she was awarded the First Licentiate of Medical School (LMS) by the University of Calcutta in 1887. Kadambini had an indomitable spirit. She travelled to England in 1892 and in record time earned the triple degrees LRCP (Edinburgh), LRCS (Glasgow) and GFPS (Dublin).
Both Kadambini and Anandibai were remarkable women who dared to be unconventional. They dreamed of achieving something that was not easily accessible, in fact all opportunities to prove themselves were denied to them in a male dominated world and profession. However they fought against all social odds to achieve their ends by overcoming the insurmountable adversities. We must acknowledge the support they received from their respective husbands, who were outstanding for their determination and fortitude. Dwarkanath Ganguly fought tirelessly for his wife’s higher education and that opened the doors of the University of Calcutta and the Calcutta Medical College for the women in future. Gopal Rao relocated himself to Bengal in order to draw attention to his wife and find out people to support her dreams of studying in the United States. It needs the joint effort of both men and women to revolutionise the way we think. This had a great impact on society at large. It not only paved the road for others to tread but also improved female healthcare in India where the ‘purdah system’ kept the women to see gentlemen doctors.
The women left their marks in Science by beginning as medical practitioners. Rukhma Bai (26th November 1864 to 25th September 1955) was the third woman in India to earn her medical degree. She became Doctor in Medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women, United Kingdom, in 1894. Rukhma was born in a Marathi family to Janardhan Pandurang and Jayantibai. Her father having passed away at an early age, Rukhmabai’s mother remarried. Her step-father Dr. Sakharam Arjun, an eminent Physician and a social activist, encouraged her to study. She was married to Dadaji Bhikaji, one of Sakhram’s cousins, at eleven years of age with an understanding that he would study and emerge as a worthy person before he could take up the responsibilities of a married man. However, Bhikaji refused to study and took to indolence and waywardness. Rukhmabai herself was keen to study and refused to live with a delinquent husband. Sakharam supported her in this regard. Her step-father associated with the social and religious reformers of Western India and she often visited the Prarthana Samaj with her mother. She was influenced by liberal ideas and strongly opposed her husband’s efforts for restoring his conjugal rights. She preferred imprisonment to living with her husband. Her long legal battle for freedom from her husband that was supported by many of the liberal social activists, including Dr. Sakharam, resulted in a landmark case involving child marriage and raised important social debates between 1884-1888. This ultimately resulted in passing the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
Participation of women in Science began with medicine but gradually it started spreading in other branches. We will find that it did not stop at only acquiring degrees in science or working in scientific institutions, it was a breakthrough in the way the world viewed the participation of women in Science. These women left their marks in other social spaces. Kadambini Ganguly was at the forefront of the movement for improving the work conditions of women coal miners in Eastern India. She was the first ever female delegation of the Indian national Congress. Rukhma Bai’s fight for women’s right to live with or leave her husband left a milestone in the history of legal battles. In this connection let us remember Lady Abala Basu, who joined Madras Medical College in the early 1880s but could not complete the course due to failing health. But the training in science had not gone to waste as she was the supporting partner of her world famous scientist husband Sir J. C. Bose, whom she ably assisted and supported in his scientific quests. Her scientific temper taught her to be an able educationist.
It was too early to say that all prejudices and misgivings were completely eradicated. But with more women getting involved in studying and then teaching science, the scientific spirit and the spirit of enquiry slowly started taking their roots in society. In the next part we will learn more about the women who pioneered in other scientific disciplines and even in technological advancements.
- “The First Women at University: Remembering ‘the London Nine’” by Philip Carter, January 28, 2018, timeshighereducation.or/blog
- The Phenomenal Story of Kadambini: One of India’s First Women Graduates and Doctors by Jovita Aranha, August 31, 2017, thebetterindia.com
- Anandibai Joshi: All about the first Indian female doctor with a degree in western medicine India Today Web Desk, New Delhi, March 11, 2020
- Rukhmabai: From Child Bride to India’s First Practicing Doctor by Shivani Bahukhandi, August 22, 2017, Feminism in India