A tribute towards a Woman Pioneer – Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi

Posted on by Sandy
A tribute towards a Woman Pioneer - Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi devoted her life to public health and fought the battle against gender inequality. Tamil Nadu’s government declared on Monday that its celebration as ‘Hospital Day’ would be observed annually by government hospitals in the City.

She was an academic, a physician, a politician, a social reformer and her 133rd birthday is celebrated today. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was India’s first woman lawmaker, a women’s rights campaigner; and the driving force behind one of India’s largest cancer institutes. She was also a driving force behind major improvements and additions to the Children’s Aid Society for which she was honored with the first active Honorary Secretary and Organiser.

She co-founded the Women’s Indian Association in 1918, and as the first woman (and vice-president) member of the Madras Legislative Council — making her the first women politician in India — she helped increase the minimum marriage age for girls and forced the Council to enact the Immoral Traffic Control Act and the Devadasi emancipation resolution.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s  history at a glance:

Muthulakshmi Reddi with family

Muthulakshmi was born in 1886 in a middle-class family in Tamil Nadu and obtained her early education in a co-education school; she passed her enrolment by private studies and was trained by her own parent. Muthulakshmi became the first girl student to be admitted to a Men ‘s college, which was Maharajas College, Pudukottai, despite stiff opposition from the society.

Muthulakshmi Reddi with family
Muthulakshmi Reddi with family

She was also the first and only female Medical College nominee in 1907. She was also the first woman surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital in Town.

Muthulakshmi had a booming career, as the first woman doctor. She married Dr. Sundera Reddi and had two sons born.

Muthulakshmi Reddi with husband and two sons
Muthulakshmi Reddi with husband and two sons

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s credits included multiple firsts:

Muthulakshmi Reddi
  • Muthulakshmi became the first woman to join Maharajas College, a complete men’s institution.
  • Muthulakshmi was the Medical College’s first and only woman nominee in 1907.
  • Muthulakshmi was the first female house surgeon at Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital of Country.
  • Muthulakshmi was British India’s first woman legislator.
  • In 1937 Muthulakshmi became the first Madras Corporation Alderwoman.
  • In 1954, Muthulakshmi became the first woman to preside over the State Social Welfare Advisory Board.
  • Muthulakshmi was the Legislative Council’s first woman vice-president.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s work towards society:

The life of Muthulakshmi came under the great influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Annie Besant, who had changed her view of life. Their works inspired her to dedicate her time and energy to elevating women and kids.

At a time when it was still rare to find a woman in public life, she was working for women’s emancipation. She often used this to dedicate her attention to helping disadvantaged people and girls.

Muthulakshmi Reddi with social workers
Muthulakshmi Reddi addressing prominent social workers visiting from all over India to Avvai Home

She served as a guest at the Paris International Conference of Women in the year 1926. In the coming years, in response to a request from the Women’s Indian Association (WTA) for entry into the Madras Legislative Council, she abandoned her practice.

Since 1917 she became affiliated with the Indian Women’s Association and took an active interest in their events. She developed an interest in orphaned children by serving poor women and children, which led her to build Avvai Home in Madras in 1930, under which she used to give orphans free education, clothing, and proper diet. Many children tend to obtain schooling and technical training at the college.

Muthulakshmi Reddi with the then president Rajendra Prasad
Muthulakshmi Reddi with the then president Rajendra Prasad

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi’s Views in her book –  ‘My experience as a Legislator’:

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

My experience as a Legislator book by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi

The Kasturba Hospital is a monument to her work and efforts in passing the resolution to establish a special hospital for women and children. 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 the immoral trafficking of women and children was piloted by her and was passed in 1930.

Muthulakshmi Reddi with the then TN CM K Kamaraju

She founded a separate hostel for Muslim girls and offered scholarships for the Institute of Harijan girls. They further proposed that the then government increase the minimum marriage age to at least 21.

Muthulakshmi initiated Cancer Relief Fund under the Women’s Indian Association. At age 68, Muthulakshmi was the state social welfare board’s first chairperson. She has brought about many improvements and additions to the Children’s Aid Society for which she was honored with the first active Honorary Secretary and Organiser.

She was Secretary of the All-Asian Women ‘s Conference until 1935. She was also the fifth All-India Women’s Conference Session held in 1930, in Lahore.

During her career, she has been associated with numerous women and children based on educational and health events. With this, Muthulakshmi was also the editor of Stree Dharma, an official organ of the 1931 to 1940 Women’s India Association.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi – The first discovery of Feminism

Muthulakshmi_Reddy

Most notably, Muthulakshmi brought in legislation to abolish the devadasi system and child marriage. This movement provoked strong resistance from stalwarts in Congress such as Rajaji and S. And Satyamurthi.

Muthulakshmi would not have imagined that decades later she would be criticized by contemporary feminists and her campaign would be seen as a patronizing gesture. Sociologist Amrit Srinivasan’s 1985 article, ‘Reform and Revival: The devadasi and her dance’, was followed by much writing on the devadasis, their original putative respected social status and their later ‘fall’, and the loss for the classical performing arts traditions of South India. 

In particular, Muthulakshmi’s campaign was criticized as it was perceived as disenfranchising devadasis from traditional privileges and denying them subjecthood and agency. Historian S. Anandi, while lauding her undeniable commitment to women’s rights, sees her as ‘othering’ devadasis and moralizing on their liberation from the clutches of the system as the only way out. 

But look at it from Muthulakshmi’s perspective. Given the humiliations she underwent, unsurprisingly she saw the devadasi system as a social evil. In fact, one could infer that to a large extent, her personal anger was what gave her campaign its sharp edge.

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