The Indian face of ‘true feminism’-Dr Muttulakshmi Reddy, a lady of many firsts

Padma Bhushan Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, From being the first woman legislator to an international speaker, she has attained several firsts in her life.

Born on 30th July 1886 in a middle-class family in Tamil Nadu. Her father was S. Narayanaswami Iyer, the Principal of Maharaja’s College. Her mother was Chandrammal, a Devadasi. Her father was ostracised from his family because of his marriage to a Devadasi.

She developed a close relationship with the maternal side of her family, and this closeness made her very perceptive of the Devadasi community and their issues. Narayanaswami Iyer broke the tradition and sent Muthulakshmi to school. Her enthusiasm for learning was so great that Muthulakshmi’s teachers decided to instruct her in subjects beyond those approved by her father.

At the onset of puberty, she was obliged to leave school, but tutoring continued at home. Chandrammal wanted to search for a bridegroom but Muthulakshmi had different aspirations. She expressed a need to be different from the common lot. She was against the subordination of women to men and rebelled whenever she heard people say that only boys needed education.

Her career as a doctor and legislator:

After the death of her cousin, who died from cancer, Muthulakshmi Reddy was motivated to work in the field of cancer and studied at Royal Cancer Hospital in the United Kingdom. She even started a cancer Institute in Adyar.

Muthulakshmi Reddy through her welfare works tried her best to uplift the status of women in Indian society.

List of firsts done by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy:

  1. She was the first woman member of Madras Legislative Council.
  2. She was the first woman to be elected Deputy Chairperson in Madras Council.
  3. She became the first president of the Women’s India Association.
  4. Further, she got elected as the first female alderman of the Madras (now Chennai) Corporation.
  5. Lastly, she was one of the first successful woman doctors in India.

She founded the Avvai Home to treat the poor and destitute people for free.

She became the president of the Women’s Association, a centre which was working for the betterment of women in India.

Muthulakshmi Reddy represented India on multiple international platforms

In 1926, she attended the World women Conference which was held in Paris and Muthulakshmi Reddy participated in it as a representative of Tamil Nadu Mahalir Sangam, a women association formed by Annie Besant and Margaret Cousins.

She rose her voice against child marriage and devadasi system, a practice under which parents marry their daughters to a deity or a temple before she attained puberty. Later, these girls were forced to become dancers and musicians in the temple itself.

In 1930, she proposed a bill against the heinous practise in the Madras Legislative Council. The bill became a success and Devadasi Abolition Act came into existence.

In 1931, she presided the first Asian women’s Conference at Lahore. This conference focused on the progress and co-operation of women in Asia, respect for our tradition and cultural values of the past to improve the health condition, education, eradicate poverty, infant mortality, abolition of child marriage and unnecessary marriage customs of the underprivileged people.

In 1933, she attended the Round Table Conference at Chicaco in America and spoke about liberty, equality and fraternity.

In 1956, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for her great works.

Her book, My Experience as a Legislator, has recorded all of her services in the Legislature.

At her request, the then government opened a children’s section in the maternity hospital.

It was due to her persistent efforts that despite opposition, she brought in the Anti-Polygamy Bill. With this, the bill for the suppression of brothels and immoral trafficking of women and children was piloted by her and was passed in 1930.

She set up a separate hostel for Muslim girls and provided scholarships for Harijan girl’s institute. She also recommended the then government to make the minimum age of marriage to at least 21.

Under the Women’s Indian Association, Muthulakshmi started the Cancer Relief Fund. At the age of 68, Muthulakshmi became the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board. She has brought about many improvements and additions to the Children’s Aid Society for which she was honoured with the first active Honorary Secretary and Organiser.

On 30 July 2019, Google showed a Doodle celebrating what would have been her 133rd birthday.

Feminism today has lost its meaning. Feminism is not taking away the beauty and strength of feminine nature. It’s not about trying to be masculine. Feminism should be celebration of feminine qualities. Gender equality, can not be attained by being masculine. A real feminism is to support the growth of a woman, to bring out her total potential in the field of her choice. May it be being a boxing champion or a space research scientist or a stay at home mom. Life of Dr Muttulakshmi Reddy is example of this real feminism.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth