Savitri Bai Phule

They say television is inspired from reality, although a large proportion of our Indian TV shows might compel us to believe otherwise. Many members of the audience who have gotten teary eyed whilst watching “Balika Vadhu” might not know of the real-life personality who went from being a child bride to one of the most prominent social reformers of her time.

Described by Tiffany Wayne as one of the “first-generation modern Indian feminists” Savitri Bai Phule was born in Maharashtra in 1831. Like many others of her generation, she was married off to twelve year old Jyotirao Phule when she was merely nine years old. Taught to read and write by her husband, it marked the beginning of a tough but remarkable journey for the nine-year old girl who went on advocate the social rights of women, especially in education.

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Source: India Today

She was the first female teacher of the first girls’ school in India, standing up for widows, unwed mothers, and untouchables, segments of society that were treated worse than dirt by the upper-caste patriarchal system. In what must have been at the time, a mammoth rebellion against conservative mindsets, she founded a care centre for pregnant rape victims. Facing severe ostracism from orthodox members of society, she refused to give in. She was supported in her endeavours by her husband who was a visionary himself and believed in equal rights for women. It was owing to Savitri bai’s efforts that a Mahila Mandal (Women’s Association) was founded in Pune in the 1850s.  She died while caring for underprivileged victims during the Third Bubonic plague pandemic in India.

Rise, to learn and act

Weak and oppressed! Rise my brother

Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone

Manu’s the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge– the English have come

Learn, you’ve had no chance in a millennium.

We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn

Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy in my soul

Crying out for knowledge to be whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste

I’ll blot out from my life at last.

In Baliraja’s kingdom, let’s beware

Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “Misery go and kingdom come!”

Awake, arise and educate

Smash traditions-liberate!

We’ll come together and learn

Policy-righteousness-religion.

Slumber not but blow the trumpet

O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast

Rise, to learn and act.

Savitri Bai Phule

 

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Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Nellie Tayloe Ross

Hillary Clinton’s election run for President, Michelle Obama’s active interest in social causes as the First Lady and Nikki Haley’s election as governor of South Carolina showcase the best side of the United States of America , upholding the ideals of freedom and equality.  But much before any of them, the US saw the election of Nellie Tayloe Ross as the first woman governor in the nation, for the state of Wyoming.

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Contesting after the death of her husband William B. Ross who was the erstwhile Democrat governor, Ross was driven not only by a desire to carry forward his work but also by her shrewd political acumen and ambition. At a time when it was “unladylike” for a woman to have such aspirations, Nellie was sworn in as governor on January 5, 1924. Growing up as a Southerner in Missouri soon after the Civil War, her difficult childhood taught her the value of hardwork. The uncertainty in her life was definitely a factor that fed her ambition to succeed.

In 1869, Wyoming Territory had been the first government in the world to grant women permanently the right to vote. In 1894, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Estelle Reel was the first woman ever elected to statewide office. In 1920, women won the vote nationwide. Now, just four years later, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first woman governor in the nation.Excerpt from ‘The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross’ , Tom Rea

Apart from continuing to back a few of her husband’s proposals, she suggested several new proposals that had hitherto never been formally raised in Wyoming- “requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks; exploration of better ways to sell Wyoming’s heavy crude oil; earmarking some state mineral royalties for school districts; obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor.”

“It is most amusing and amazing to me, for example, to be asked, as I was soon after my election, whether I expected to appoint any men to office? This question, telegraphed to me from the East by a well-known metropolitan newspaper, had every indication of being quite sincere, and was apparently inspired by the fear that the elevation of women to executive office was likely to be followed by the dismissal of all men and the substitution of women in their places.”- Nellie Tayloe Ross

In an era when the arena of the female was primarily the domestic and her most acceptable role as a charming and social hostess, Nellie Ross successfully made the transition from First Lady of Wyoming to the Governor. Indeed it might seem like a favourable precedent for another charismatic First Lady that many have wanted to see at the helm of affairs.

Trying to find a middle ground between being ambitious and being perceived as ‘manly’ or ‘unfeminine’ is something female politicians and leaders are struggling with, even ninety years later. It is undeniable that even now, comments about appearance, be it positive or negative, overshadow achievements and calibre. A vast majority of online articles about women achievers begin with ‘Top 10 hottest women in…’.

Not all men abuse or molest, or are sexist, but what is the first thing men see, and women see, when they look at a woman? That is the question.