Remembering SAVITRI BAI PHULE on International Women Day

    Read about the life, challenges, contribution and legacy of Savitri Bai Phule.

More than Jyotirao, his wife deserves praise. No matter how much we praise her, it would not be enough. How can one describe her stature? She cooperated with her husband completely and along with him, faced all the trials and tribulations that came their way. The couple spent their entire lifetime working for people.” Narayan Mahadev alias Mama Paramanand (31/7/1890) 1 

Women, the other name of love, resilience, strength and beauty. Her contribution in the social, economic, political and cultural spheres cannot be measured in a single day but to mark her achievements, we have International Women’s Day dedicated to her. The Campaign theme for International Women’sDay 2021 is ‘Choose to Challenge'. 


This article throws light on the Mother of Feminism, Savitribai Phule who believes, from Challenge comes Change. She chooses to challenge gender inequality, caste discrimination and fight for the liberation and empowerment of women and left no stone unturned to change the life of women and downtrodden classes. She dedicated her life for the emancipation of oppressed and struggled for the rights of the marginalized majority – women, dalits, adivasis and backward classes. 


Savitribai Phule, a pioneer in providing education for girls, was born on January 3, 1831 in Naigaon village in Satara District, Maharashtra, She was the eldest daughter of Lakshmi and khandoji Nevase Patil who belong to the Mali community.


She was illiterate when she was married to Jyotirao Phule at the tender age of nine. She was fortunate that Jyotirao strongly believe in the importance of education. He had studied Hindu scriptures and concluded that all men are equal and education is the only tool which helps people in getting rid of social inequalities. He himself started the education of Savitribai Phule. Initially she was taught by him when she brought lunch for him in the field. Later she took a teacher’s training course at an institution run by an American missionary in Ahmednagar and in Pune’s Normal School. She then started teaching girls in Pune’s Maharmada along with Sagunbai, a revolutionary feminist and a mentor to Jyotiba. 


After her training, she became India’s first woman teacher and headmistress. This caused waves of fury in the society. She and her husband dedicated her life in spreading education and knowledge. She considered education as a means to break the shackles of socially constructed discriminatory practices. She with her husband started the first School for Girls in Bhide Wada and the ‘Native Library'. 


In 1853, they established an education society that opened more schools for women from all classes in surrounding villages. In school curriculum special emphasis was given to subjects like English, Science, Mathematics and Social Studies. Regular parent - teacher meetings were also arranged to educate parents on the importance of education. They also focused on providing girls and boys vocational and practical education and believed that an Industrial Department should be attached to the schools where children could learn useful trades and crafts thus become able to manage their lives comfortably and independently. They insisted that education should give one the ability to choose between right and wrong and between truth and untruth in life. (We see the same thought in New Education Policy 2020)


It was not easy for Savitribai to go to school for teaching. She had to face innumerable abuses and listened to obscenities heaped on her way to reach. The people pelted stones and dung on her but their abuses did not affect her determination. Gradually she gained the courage to respond to these insults and said, “Your efforts inspire me to continue my work. May God bless you.” 


Jyotirao Phule asked her to stay strong and advised her to take two sarees, one to wear on the way which would soiled by dung thrown at her and another fresh one to change after reaching school. She continued this but one day things got worse, a ruffian stood in her path and asked her to stop educating  the Mahars and Mangsor or she have to pay heavy price for it. Crowd gathered to watch the drama but none helped her. The determined Savitri slapped him hard. The man along with the onlookers ran away. This sensational incident by a woman of that time spread like wildfire all over the city of Pune and finally brought a stop to the abuse.


Empowered Savitribai started 18 schools between her and husband Jyotirao during period 1848 and 1952. In 1852, the couple was felicitated with a shawl by the British Government for their work in Vishrambag Wada, Pune. The couple also opened a night school for women and children of those from the working class community. They set up 52 free hostels for poor students across Maharashtra.


Savitribai was moved when she saw the plight of widows in the society who had to get their head shaved and refrain from any kind of beautification or pleasure in life. She organised a boycott by barbers against the traditions of head tonsuring of widows.


In 1852, she started the Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness about women’s rights. She called women’s gathering where members of all castes were welcomed and everybody was expected to sit on the same mat. She opened a shelter for them in 1854. After years of continuous reforms, she paved the way to build a larger shelter in 1864 for destitute women, widows and child brides cast aside by their families. She educated them all. She was also anti-infanticide activist. She opened a women’s shelter the ‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’ where Brahmin widows could safely deliver their children. She adopted Yashwantrao, the son of a widow sheltered in this institution. She also campaigned against child marriage and advocated for widow remarriage. She was strongly against Sati Pratha. On 28 January, 1866 Vishnu Shastri inspired by Phule's Movement opened an institution to promote widow remarriage by the name of ‘Punarvivahtojak Mandal’ (Remarriage Association). 


She and husband Jyotirao carried on their struggle for gender equality and fight against caste system in spite of tremendous maltreatment by the upper classes. The oppressed classes were forbidden from drinking water from the common village well. They dug the well in their house for the use of untouchables. This move caused the furore in 1869.


She was instrumental in shaping ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ (The Truth Seeker's Society) which aimed at eliminating discrimination  and the need for social order. In 1873, Savitribai started the practice of Satyashodhak Marriages, where couples took an oath of education and equality. The couple also opened a care centre called 'Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha' for pregnant rape victims and helped deliver and save their children. 


In 1890, Jyotirao passed away. She lit his pyre setting aside all the social norms. She carried on his legacy and took over the reins of Satyashodhak Samaj. She presided over the meetings and guided workers. A woman chairing a session in those times was revolutionary in itself.


When the bubonic plague spread across in Maharashtra in 1897, she with her son Yashwantrao rushed to help the victims. They opened the clinic for them in Hadapsar, Pune. She fed 2,000 children daily during the epidemic. One such day, while nursing aninfected child she too get infected and consequently, she passed away on March 10, 1897.


The support, cooperation, companionship that Savitribai gave to her husband throughout his life is extraordinary. The ideal of gender equality and companionship that they present transcends the limits of time and space. Their contribution in the field of education, upliftment of the oppressed people and women liberation is unparallel.


Besides her identity as Jyotirao’s wife, she was a champion of women’s liberation and a courageous mass leader. She dared to pursue the Noble profession of education in the time when education for women and of marginalised people was uncommon. 


She is one of the feminist icon who defined the word ‘Feminist’ with her work when there was no such word feminism in history. It is very sad that the lady who ignited the lives of millions does not find true place in the books of history. Her life and struggle deserves to be appreciated by a wider spectrum.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


She was also a prolific author and a poet. Some of her valuable writings are-

1. Kavyaphule - Collection of poems, 1854.

2. Jyotirao’s Speeches, Edited by Savitribai Phule, 25 December 1856.

3. Savitribai’s Letters to Jyotirao.

4. Speeches of Matoshree Savitribai, 1892.

5. Bavankashi Subodh Ratnakar, 1892.

These works have been collected together in a 194-page volume ‘The Complete Works of Savitribai Phule’ edited by Dr. M. G. Mali. The volume has an introduction by the famous thinker and philosopher Dr. Surendra Barlinge.

Savitribai’s Legacy

1. Along with B. R. Ambedkar and Annabhau Sathe, Phule has become an icon in particular for the backward classes. Women in local branches of the Manavi Hakk Abhiyan (Human Rights Campaign, a Mang-Ambedkarite body) frequently organise processions on their jayanti (birthday in Marathi and other Indian languages).

2. Pune City Corporation created a memorial for her in 1983.

3. On 10 March 1998 a stamp was released by India Post in honour of Phule.

4. In 2015, the University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University.

5. Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule, an Indian drama television series based on her life was aired on DD National in 2016.

6. Savitribai Phule, an Indian Kannada-language biopic was made about Phule in 2018. 


Let us summarise the article by one of her most loved and valued poem -

Go, Get Education
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work—gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animal without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You’ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.


1. Roundtable India


Just to put matters in perspective, “The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.” Apparently, gender discrimination wasn’t only prevalent it India. It then existed across the world.


Having said that we must remember two 18-19th century queens whose names are immortal. First is Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar, able ruler and administrator from 1767 to 1795. And second is Rani of Jhansi’s rebellion in 1857.

Also read

1. Were Backward Classes always suppressed in India

2. How British created the Dowry System in Punjab

3. Savarkar the Reformer

4. Ambedkar was also an Economist

5. Ekanath the Reformer  

6. Arya Samaj and DAV Movement

7. Devi Tagore who brought about a Social Revolution in Bengal in the 19th century

8. The Story of Sindhutai Satkal

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