Today, the women in India are not behind men in any respect. They have excelled in every field, be it in education, governance, politics, science, judiciary, sports and in almost all other fields. There are big names of Indian women like Indira Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Sucheta Kriplani and many others who have made their names in the history because of their education and wisdom. However, not much is available in the history about Savitribai Phule, a woman who kept the foundation for women education in India. She was the first woman who started the first ever school in India exclusively for girls at a time when nobody could dare to even think about educating a girl. In fact, every educated woman in the society owes a debt to her. She was born in a poor family in Naigaon, district Satara in Maharashtra on January 3, 1831. Her father was a farmer. At the age of nine, she was married to Jyotiba Phule, a great social reformer. At that time, the Hindu society was male –dominated who treated the women as their slaves who had to strictly follow the instructions of the male members of the family. After her marriage with Jyotiba Phule, she was inspired to read and teach by her husband. She was taught by him and sent for training in teaching at Mitchell’s school in Pune where she performed very well and remained successful. Then she opened a first ever school for girls in Pune in January 1848 with admission of nine girls of different castes on the opening day and became the first woman teacher of India. She opened two more schools for girls with full support of her husband and in 1851, there were about 150 girls studying in these schools. She even inspired an eleven year old girl ‘Mukta’ of her school to write an essay on Dalit emancipation which is considered as the cornerstone of dalit literature. She was moved by the plight of dalits who were forced to live a miserable life in the caste- ridden society. She thought that only the education could bring some improvement in their life. She opened another school for Dalits in her village Naigaon in 1852.
The orthodox society could not tolerate these revolutionary and daring steps taken to educate the women and the dalits which were against the rigid Hindu traditions of those days. They started harassing her. She was insulted, abused, and threatened. Mud and cow dung was thrown upon her but she faced all this courageously and continued with her endeavor. The dalits were not allowed to drink water from the wells and ponds which were mostly meant for the upper class people and many times they remained thirsty. They dug a well in their house in 1868 for the dalits which was also a challenge for the upper caste society. The government honored them in 1852 for their efforts in the field of education. They opened two more schools for girls and one school exclusively for the dalit children. They also did great job to emancipate the miseries of widows. In those days, the marriage of the girls was generally solemnized with the men who were much older in age. Due to the high mortality, the husbands died earlier. The widows were not permitted to remarry. Their heads were shaven and they were forced to live an ascetic life. She decided to put a stop on this practice. She took up with the barbers and persuaded them not to perform this unethical act of shaving the heads of widows. The barbers went on strike against this practice forced by the orthodox and cruel society. The widows were also sexually assaulted by the male members of the extended family. Once a pregnant brahmin widow was about to commit suicide on account of her forced pregnancy. Jyotiba Phule persuaded her not to do so and assured her that he will give her child his name after his/her birth to save her from disgrace. Savitribai phule also gave her consent and kept the widow at their house for delivery who gave birth to a son. Later they adopted this child who was named as Yashwantrao . This boy later became a doctor. However, theyhad no issue of their own. In 1854, they opened an orphanage for the young widows and the unfortunate children. This was the first orphanage started by any individual in India. They also opened a ‘Balhatya Pratibandhak Grah’ for the delivery of the forced pregnancies. In 1873, they formed ‘Satya Sodak Samaj ‘ which worked for the liberation of lower caste people from the suppression of the brahmins.
She was also a good poet of Marathi and English. In one of her poems, she writes about the importance of education in the following words.
“ All gets lost without knowledge,
We become animals without wisdom”
Her first poetry composition ‘Kavya Phule’ was published in 1854. Her poetry was mainly centered at educational and social reforms. She is known as the pioneer of Marathi poetry. She did a remarkable work when there was a severe draught in Pune. She, along with her husband used to feed the children and it is said that they fed more than one thousand children in a day. For this purpose, they moved from village to village to raise the funds. Then again in 1897, Pune and surroundings were hit by the dreaded disease ‘Plague’. Both Jyotiba and Savitribai made vigorous efforts for the treatment of the affected people. A treatment centre was opened by them where their doctor son Yashwantrao used to treat them. They also made arrangement for the stay of the patients. She personally took care of the victims of the disease. Due to her continued presence among the patients, she was also infected with the plague and died on March 10,1897 as a result of the same.
She was one of the first women social reformers of the country who despite all odds in the male dominated society and the prevailing absurd Hindu social customs continued her endeavor of serving downtrodden and the women. However, due to the brahmnical hegemony over the intellectual domain, she could not find a proper place in the annals of history. The government however, has recognised her contribution only after a lapse of one century from her death. In March, 2015 the University of Pune has been renamed as the “Savitribai Phule University of Pune.”In 1998, the government of India released a stamp in her honor. The Maharashtra government has also instituted an award in her name to recognize women social reformers. As she was a first woman teacher of India, it would have been more proper and more relevant if her birthday declared as Teachers Day or Women’s Day to offer her a real tribute. Recently, a member parliament from Maharashtra demanded Bharat Ratna for her which is a just demand keeping in view her great contribution in the reformation of the society.