150 years ago, a childless mother birthed India’s movement for emancipation of women

Nandini Patwardhan Anandibai Joshi

I recently published a deeply researched biography of India’s first woman doctor, Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee (also written as Anandbai Joshi by some). “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions” takes place during the 1880s in India and USA. On this Mother’s Day, I want to honor Anandi-bai as a foremother to generations of Indian women, whose education and empowerment gradually became a mainstream idea, thanks to the changes that were set in motion as a result of her courage and sacrifice.

We tend to dismiss historical figures in two ways. One, as if that person’s distinction was pre-ordained. That is, we tend not to think of the individual as just an ordinary person who persevered against insurmountable odds to eventually achieve success. Two, since the person lived a long time ago, we ignore them because we think that their struggles are no longer relevant. Neither of these preconceptions applies in the case of Anandi Joshee. Her story is worth knowing as it has the power to inspire and teach us a lot even today

Nandini Patwardhan India's first female doctor, Anandibai JoshiBorn in 1865, Anandi was married at the age of nine to her husband Gopal, a widower who was over fifteen years older than her. This was in keeping with the custom of the time. What made Anandi’s marriage unusual was that Gopal was determined to educate her. Before agreeing to marry her, he made Anandi’s father promise that there would be no objection to this plan. Happy to have found a groom for his “too old” daughter, Anandi’s father readily agreed.

Anandi became a mother when she was thirteen. Her joy curdled into grief when her son died within weeks of his birth. She had seen other girl-women of her age become mothers. She had also witnessed their suffering due to difficult pregnancies that ended in the death of mother and/or her baby. As she would later state, this had led her to believe that

“A child’s death does no harm to its father, but its mother does not want it to die.”

Faced with this loss, women consoled themselves by seeing it as karma. Comforted by the older women in their joint families, they turned to fasts and rituals as a way to heal their broken hearts. But, only a few years of education had started to change Anandi. She had developed the critical thinking skills necessary to understand the root causes.

She realized that she lost her baby because of lack of access to medical care. The reality was that there were very few western-trained physicians in India at this time. And, even those few could not treat female patients owing to prevalent ideas about modesty. In her grief, Anandi realized that if there were women doctors, they would be able to treat women patients and this would neatly circumvent all the religious, social, and tradition-bound objections to men providing medical care to women.

Until this point, Anandi had been a reluctant participant in her husband’s quixotic and sometimes harsh attempts to educate her. The death of her newborn brought clarity. She would study, but not simply to learn the alphabet and grammar and maps and history. Rather, she would study so she might provide medical care and offer medical training to her beleaguered “country-sisters” (desh-bhagini).

Mahatma Gandhi would later proclaim “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” Long before that, Anandi put the idea into action. She decided that she would use her husband’s support to become a women’s doctor. Since the few medical colleges that the British had opened in India did not admit female students, she prepared herself to challenge religious and social strictures. She would cross the seas, travel without her husband, live among non-Hindus, and obtain a medical education—all the things that were considered sinful at the time.

Anandi sailed alone from Calcutta to New York in 1883. Braving bitter winters and lack of vegetarian food, battling loneliness, and studying hard despite her failing health, Anandi graduated from the women’s medical college in Philadelphia in 1886. 

Unfortunately, she contracted tuberculosis and died within months of returning to India in late 1886. Owing to her early death, Anandi was not able to practice medicine in India. 

However, her example—her courage, grit, and triumph in obtaining the M.D. degree—proved to the Hindu orthodoxy that women were capable of a life of the mind, and that they were deserving of empathy; indeed, that the key to Indian society’s uplift lay in the well-being of its women.

Almost 150 years ago, Anandi, the childless mother, birthed the movement for the emancipation of Indian women. It is no longer uncommon to see girls attending schools and colleges, serving as nurses and doctors, teachers, engineers, and pilots. It all began with the sacrifice of one young woman! On this Mother’s Day and on all others, let us honor Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee. 

Nandini’s bio: Nandini Patwardhan grew up in India and has lived in the United States since the early 1980s. She is a graduate of IIT Mumbai and is a retired software developer. In researching and writing “Radical Spirits,” she called on her insider-outsider perspective in both countries (the US and India) that she calls home.