India’s struggle for freedom is entirely incomplete without the mention and celebration of the women who participated in it. Through this detailed article, explore the lives, struggles and successes of women who brought us where we are. As SheThePeople launches the Indian Women’s Museum, we will be sharing a lot of rich, interesting and often forgotten histories of women. Let us thus remember some of the greatest women of our country, who have fought for the freedom of their motherland with fearlessness, intellect and courage.
She was a prolific writer and a social impact worker in undivided Bengal in the early 20th century. She is well regarded for her efforts in gender equality. She established the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls. She was a notable Muslim feminist, and modern writers such as Taslima Nasrin cite her as an influence. There is a statue of Begum Rokeya in Begum Rokeya Memorial Centre in Pairabondh, now Rangpur, where she was born.
“Through her charismatic and resilient leadership, she defied all obstacles put up by a society that barred women from pursuing their dreams. With a sound knowledge of the history of the region and the challenges facing the time and society in which she lived, she was a woman far more advanced and progressive than her contemporaries,” notes Daily Star in a profile on her.
She used the power of the word to raise her voice against the challenges and had the vision for the emancipation of Bengali Muslim women. Her father was a landlord who was conservative and although he was interested in education, he didn’t give his daughter the opportunity to study and maintained a strict rule of the Islamic code of purdah (veil) for the women in the family. After her marriage, to Shakhawat Hussain, who was liberal minded, she studied and powered ahead to become a champion of women’s education and rights.
Born: 9 December 1880, Rangpur District, Bangladesh | Died: 9 December 1932, Kolkata (she died on her own birthday 52 years later)
Sarojini Naidu was an Indian independence activist, poet and politician and thinker. Her oratory skills are legendary and her accomplishments as poet, got her the moniker ‘The Nightingale of India’. Naidu wrote the play “Maher Muneer“, which earned her a scholarship to study overseas. She became the second woman president of the Indian National Congress. She was the first woman Governor of an Indian state after independence. Her collection of poems earned her literary acclaim. In 1905, she published her first book, a collection of poems, under the title of “Golden Threshold”.
She was born to a Bengali Hindu family. Her father, Dr. Aghore Nath Chattopadhyay was a scientist, philosopher, and educator. He founded the Nizam College of Hyderabad. Her mother, Varada Sundari Devi was a poetess in the Bengali language. Her selfless and relentless work during the struggle for freedom, had her actively supporting Mahatma Gandhi’s movement. She also led other campaigns like the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, the Khilafat issue, the Sabarmati Pact, the Satyagraha Pledge and the Civil Disobedience Movement and received global attention for her determination and contribution as a freedom fighter.
Born: 13 February 1879, Hyderabad | Died: 2 March 1949, Lucknow
Capt Laxmi Sehgal
Not just a freedom fighter but a woman whose efforts pushed against casteism in India. Captain Laxmi Sehgal began her quest to change history by questioning India’s treatment of people as per a caste system. Growing up she was shocked to know that her grandmother refer to some “whose very shadows are polluting.” The Hindu cites that, “To take this one, the young Laxmi one day walked up to a tribal girl, held her hand and led her to play. Laxmi and her grandmother were furious with each other, but Lakshmi was the one triumphant.”
But this was just the beginning. Why was she Captain? Laxmi was moved by the country’s sentiments and the call for freedom. When she grow up, she trained to be a medical student but was drawn to the freedom struggle. In 1940 she left for Singapore where she worked for a little while. She had been fascinated by Subhash Chandra Bose and when she heard that Bose was keen to draft women into the organisation, she wanted to reach out. He was visiting Singapore when she met him and convinced him to lead a women’s regiment, which was to be called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Under her leadership, there was a great response to the call and since then she has been called Capt Laxmi Sehgal.
- She was arrested by the British Army on March 4, 1946 but released after a few months. She married Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal in 1947 in Lahore and then settled in Kanpur.
- She joined the Communist Party of India-Marxists (CPI-M) in 1971
- Became a Rajya Sabha member in 1989
- She also contested Presidential election in 2002 and lost to APJ Abdul Kalam
- She was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998.
Sehgal had her own clinic in Kanpur where she used the treat poor people, particularly women, free of cost. Laxmi was the daughter Ammu Swaminathan, one of India’s strongest voices against the caste system. Her father Subbarama Swaminathan, from Kerala, shaped his mother’s and her perspectives to the world.
Born: 24 October 1914, Malabar District | Died: 23 July 2012, Kanpur
Kittur Rani Chennamma
She was a queen who fought the British Empire eye to eye, and perhaps one of the very first female independence activists of our country. She was instrumental in provoking many women to rise against the British rule. She was Chennamma Queen of the princely state Kittur in Karnataka.
Rani Chennamma was born in north of Belgaum in a village called Kakati and from a very young age she received training in horse riding, sword fighting and archery. A brave young girl, she was well known for being fearless. She was married early to Mallasarja Desai, ruler of Kittur at the age of 15. But her husband died quickly thereafter leaving her alone with a son, who also died in a tragic incident. Chennamma made it her mission to work for the country. She took the reigns after her husband’s death.
The young queen left no stone unturned in saving her land, Kittur from the clutches of the British. She had to fight against all odds including traitors on her side. Chennamma fought valiantly along with her close aide and well known freedom fighter Sangolli Rayanna. She was ultimately imprisoned for life at the Bailhongal fort where she eventually died.
She famously said, “Why should I pay you tax ? Are you my brother, sister, relative or a friend?”
Born: 23 October 1778, Belgaum | Died: 21 February 1829, Bailhongal
Born: Mangalore 1892 | Died: 1992, Hubli.
Umabai Kundapur played a major role in freedom struggle for India and served the country for nearly 50 years. She was the founder of the of ‘Bhagini Mandal’ and the leader of women’s wing of Hindustani Seva Dal. Umabai Kundapur was born as Bhavani Golikeri to Golikeri Krishna Rao and Jungabai in Mangalore in 1892. She was married to Sanjiv Rao Kundapur at a young age of 13. Her father-in-law Anandarao Kundapur was a progressive thinker and believed in uplifting the condition of women. Under his guidance, Umbai continued her education.
Through Gaundevi Mahila Samaj in Mumbai, Umabai helped other women to learn and get educated.
-Umabai lost her husband when she was just 25
-Her father in law started Karnataka Press and Umabai joined him
-Umabai led the Tilak Kanya Shala, a school for girls
In 1924, she helped Dr. Hardikar (founder of Hindustani Seva Dal) recruit over 150 women to help in Belgaum session of the All India Congress. In 1932, she was arrested and kept in Yerwada jail for four months. While she was in jail, the British confiscated Karnataka Press, sealed her school and declared her NGO ‘Bhagini Mandal’ as unlawful.
Sarojini Naidu supported her and gave her guidance to keep away from limelight. She was appointed as the agent of the Kastruba Trust.
Savitri Bai Phule
Considered one of India’s early feminists, she was instrumental in opposing child marriage and discrimination based on caste and gender.
Savitribai founded the first women’s school at Bhide Wada in Pune in 1848 along with her husband Jyotirao Phule. They encouraged children of people then called ‘untouchables.’ And had to endure a lot of abuse at the hands of the orthodox society of Pune but remained resilient and promoted fairness.
Was instrumental is transforming lives of young widows as a fall out of child marriage under the British rule. Young widows who become targets of lust by men and become pregnant were ousted by society for no fault of theirs. Their own families would disown them and that’s when Savitribai and Jyotirao started a home for widows to help such women.
The Government of Maharashtra has instituted an award in her name to recognize women social reformers.
Born: 3 January 1831, Naigaon | Died: 10 March 1897, Pune
Uda Devi was a warrior in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, who fought against the British East India Company.
While upper caste histories highlight the resistance contributions of upper caste heroines like Jhansi ki Rani, the reality was also that the battles for independence from British colonial rule also featured Dalit resistance fighters like Uda Devi. She and other female Dalit participants are today remembered as the warriors or “Dalit Veeranganas” of the 1857 Indian Rebellion.
It is believed Devi had climbed a pipal tree, from where she shot dead 32 or 36 British soldiers. And according to some reports, in respect in recognition of her brave feat, British officers like Campbell had bowed their heads over her dead body.
Born: Awadh| Died: November 1857, Lucknow.
She was very conscious of the arrogance of the upper-caste and constantly tried to unsettle them by standing against it. According to a detailed story in the Indian Express, Ammu Swaminathan was a born rebel. When she got married to a man twenty years older, she is said to have had her own conditions. “These included a shift to Madras, learning English from an English woman so that she could master the language perfectly and not be asked what time she’d reach home, because “nobody asked her brothers that question.”
Ammu Swaminathan was an Indian social worker and political activist during the Indian independence movement and also a member of the Constituent Assembly of India. She was considered one of the country’s strongest voices against the caste system.
Upon moving to Madras with her husband, she studied, honed her skills and transformed to be one of the prominent faces in the pre-independence struggle of India.
In 1952, Ammu Swaminadhan was elected a member of the Rajya Sabha from Madras State. She was associated with several cultural and social organizations, and served as President of the Bharat Scouts and Guides from November 1960 to March 1965. She was also selected as ‘Mother of The Year’ in 1975 on the inauguration of International Women’s Year.
Born:Palakkad 1894, India | Died: 1978, Palakkad district
Matangini Hazra was an Indian revolutionary who participated in the Indian independence movement until she was shot dead by the British Indian police in front of the Tamluk Police Station in Midnapore on 29 September 1942. She was affectionately known as Gandhi buri, where Buri is Bengali for old lady Gandhi. At 71 years of age, Hazra was on her way to capture the police station along with a large crowd, as part of the Quit India Movement in 1942.
Born: 19 October 1870, Tamluk | Died: 29 September 1942, Tamluk
Being born to a poor peasant family, she was widowed at the age of 18 without any children. Matangini always participated in protests against the British Raj and was jailed a couple of times. Reports say during the involvement in the Quit India Movement, 71 years old Matangini led a procession of six thousand supporters. She was shot repeatedly by the police but she chanted “Vande Mataram” till her last breath and held the Indian flag high up.
She was the shadow of Jhansi Ki Rani, Laxmi Bai. Her grit, courage and valor has been a tremendous source of inspiration for both women and men. She was born to a Dalit family. Jhalkari was a courageous woman. Some reports say she once had an encounter with a tiger in the jungle and killed it with her axe. Her remarkable resemblance to Rani Laxmi Bai and incredible fighting tactics led her in the ‘Durga Dal’. Jhalkari Bai was the one who played a very crucial role in the battle of Jhansi as she disguised herself as Rani Laxmibai and took command of the army, thus giving the real queen a chance to escape in the meantime.
Born: 22 November 1830, Jhansi | Died: 1890, Gwalior
Naga leader Rani Gaidinliu is considered as one of the most iconic freedom fighters. She joined the movement at a young age of 13, was arrested in 1932 when she was barely 16 and was released in 1946 after having spent 14 years in prison. Her story of grit, courage and resilience is an inspiration to all women. She joined her cousin Haipou Jadonang, who had led the Heraka Movement. This movement was for the revival of the Naga Tribal religion. She led this movement against the British when she was 17, which resulted in her arrest. She was then sent for a 14-year long imprisonment.
Her forces had started to engage in armed rebellion against the British in Cachar Hills (16 February 1932) and the Hangrum village (18 March 1932). Her growing followers and popularity threatened the British forces, which made them launch a hunt for her. This, in turn, forced her to go underground.
She was fondly acknowledged by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, for her indomitable spirit and for the freedom that she fought for valiantly.
“We are free people, the white man should not rule over us” she used to say.
Born: 26 January 1915, Manipur | Died: 17 February 1993, Manipur
India’s first woman chief minister, Sucheta Kriplani, chartered her own independent course. She was committed to the Gandhian ideology, Sucheta was fearless in her mind and spirit.
- Worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi in his several Partition movements
- Part of Quit India Movement
- India’s first woman Chief Minister, serving as the head of the Uttar Pradesh government from 1963 to 1967
She was born in Ambala, Punjab (now in Haryana) to a Bengali Brahmin family. She completed her education at Indraprastha College and Punjab University prior to becoming a Professor of Constitutional History at Benaras Hindu University.
Born: 25 June 1908, Ambala | Died: 1 December 1974, New Delhi