Trail-blazers, torch bearers, dreamers, doers and go-getters - the following is a list of Indian women who have been each of that at different points in their lifetimes. Women who did the extraordinary, invaded territories marked for men and dared to stay long enough to make them their own. They are the reason we look at women in professional spaces with utmost normalcy today – for it is them whose first hoisted the female-flag there over the past century. Meet the 10 women pioneers of our time:
1. The First Woman Prime Minister: Indira Gandhi
Woman of the Millennium, The Greatest Indian Prime Minister, and The Iron Lady of India – together, the three titles might make for a fitting prelude to this legendary woman’s iconic stature. It is said that she was the most ruthless PM India has witnessed, and her 15 year term was as eventful as it can get. She led a national war, set the record straight in a civil uprising, ruled over a country undergoing a national emergency, and was one of the reasons the Green revolution in India became a reality. She was assassinated by her own two bodyguards, thus bringing to an end the most tempestuous Prime Minister term held by anyone.
2. The first Woman President : Pratibha Patil
No earlier than the 12th Presidency of Independent India, was finally conferred upon a woman in a historic moment, in 2007. Pratibha Patil, a politician hailing from the small town of Jalgaon in Maharashtra, navigated the Indian political scene as a low-key contender, and assumed various roles at the assembly as well as legislative levels, before she took up the mantle as President.
3. The First Woman in Space: Kalpana Chawla
“For Her, the sky was the limit,” “We love you to the moon and back,” are both phrases that Kalpana Chawla probably inspired. India’s first female astronaut who went into outer space. She was as wise as she was gutsy. “You are just your intelligence”, she famously said on one of her space expeditions, where one is weightless due to the lack of gravity. Born in India, she joined the NASA to give flight to her ambitions. On November 19, 1997, by becoming part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87, she became the first Indian woman, and the second Indian person, after Rakesh Sharma, to have undertaken a space mission. Incidentally, she met her tragic end on a space mission in 2003 too – but died doing something she loved. She had traveled 10.67 million km, as many as 252 times around the Earth.
4. The First WomanTeacher: Savitribai Phule
Born in a small Maharashtrian state to peasants, married off as a child, Savitribai Phule would be the last person you would expect to be at the helm of India’s biggest reformatory movement. Yet she along with her Jyotiba Phule, at the time of the independence struggle of India in 1848, were leading a revolution of their own on the side- for women’s right to education. She received an education from him herself, as he diligently taught her everything he learn at school. And subsequently, thanks to this couple, the first few Indian girls went to their newly founded women’s school at Bhide, Pune and obtained an education under this exemplary first woman teacher- Savitribai Phule.
5. The First Woman Doctor: Anandi Gopal Joshi
Anandi Gopal Joshi had a similar story as that of Savitribai Phule. Born in a district just outside of Mumbai, she was forcefully married as a little child, but to a man of great learning and values, who believed in education for woman and wanted his wife to study medicine. He set the ball rolling, by writing a letter to an American acquaintance. The letter fell into more consequential hands eventually, and before one knew it, Anandibai was the first Hindu woman to set foot on American Soil, study medicine at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. When she returned a doctor certified to practice, she received a hero’s welcome, as well as appointment as the physician-in-charge to the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital in what is now Kolhapur.
6. The First Woman Lawyer: Cornelia Sorabji:
Cornelia Sorabji becoming the first Indian lawyer, was preceded by a series of other firsts she effected. The first female graduate from Bombay University, the first Indian to study at a British university, and the first woman to read law at the Oxford University in 1889. In her career, she championed one cause particularly vehemently- defending the rights of the Purdahnashins- women who were prevented from interacting with males in the outside world. It is said that she helped over 600 women and orphaned girls fight their legal battles, often free of cost. When the floodgates opened for women to become lawyers, she was the first female lawyer to be admitted to the Allahbad High Court.
7. The First Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize: Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic Nun, who is hailed as the most enlightened and kind soul of our time. She spent most of her lifetime building humanitarian institutions in impoverished sections of India- like hospices and homes for people with HIV, AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, as well as soup kitchens, homes, dispensaries and mobile clinics for the marginalized. For her dedicated efforts she was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, after which she was christened Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
8. The First female jawan in the Army: Sapper Shanti Tigga
Not only did this woman outsmart her male peers in a duel of mind, she also outperformed them in a contest of matter. At 35, as a mother of two, she was in physical shape that was as good as ever. She was swifter, stronger and sharper than her male competitors in the physical tests preceding selections for the army, and was rightfully inducted into the 969 Railway Engineer Regiment of Territorial Army. Women were disallowed from assuming combative-roles, but Tigga beat the odds and the norms to become the first and only woman jawan back then in a 1.3 million strong all-male millitary force.
9. The First Woman to scale Mount Everest: Bachendri Pal on 23 May 1984.
In 1984, a member of the supposedly weaker sex attempted something even the toughest men might outright refuse. Chosen to be on a team of 11, which constituted 5 other women besides her, she made her way to the Everest Base camp in Kathmandu. She was simply following her basest instincts and saw it as uniting with her gods – maybe that’s why she never saw it as a threatening task. ”We the hill people have always worshiped the mountains…my overpowering emotion at this awe-inspiring spectacle was, therefore, devotional” were her words when she first caught a glimpse of her challenge, and she clearly felt like she was coming home. In the face of adversary, half the troop turned around, leaving Bachendri as the only woman who decided to continue. On 23 May 1984, the team reached the summit of Mount Everest at and Bachendri Pal created history.
10. The First Woman Photojournalist: Homai Vyarawalla
The first woman to decide to want to photograph the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah and Indira Gandhi, was born as early as 1913 and lived a proud, principled, purist life of 99 years as a photojournalist – the first and only of her era and stature. She took up photography in her 20s, and gained prominence around the world war II era when she moved to Bombay to work for the Illustrated weekly of India. She kept up the clicking till around 1973, when she was disenchanted by the new generation of photojournalists with a lack of structure or discipline, who ruined the experience for her, inducing her to go on somewhat of a photography-fast till she died, in 2012.
Cover image by: The Guardian