Muthulakshmi Reddy as a medical student
|Died||22 July 1968(aged 81)|
|Children||S. Krishnamurthi S. Rammohan|
Muttulakshmi Reddy was appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. This nomination marked the beginning of her lifelong effort to "correct the balance for women by removing social abuses and working for equality in moral standards″. She was a women's activist and social reformer.
She had a number firsts to her name: the first female student to be admitted into a men's college, the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, the first woman Legislator in British India, the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board, the first woman Deputy President of the Legislative Council, and the first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation Avvai Home.
Reddy was born in princely state of Pudukkottai of Tamil Nadu. In spite of various constraints faced by girls in India of her time, she completed her higher education and was admitted into the medical profession. In 1907, she joined the Madras Medical College, where she achieved a brilliant academic record. With several gold medals and prizes to her credit, Reddy graduated in 1912 to become one of the first female doctors in India. Soon after, she came under the influence of Annie Besant, and then of Mahatma Gandhi..
Her father was S. Narayanaswami Iyer, the Principal of Maharaja's College. Her mother was Chandrammal, a Devadasi. Her father was ostracised from his family because of his marriage to a Devadasi. She developed a close relationship with the maternal side of her family, and this closeness made her very perceptive of the Devadasi community and their issues. Narayanaswami Iyer broke the tradition and sent Muthulakshmi to school. Her enthusiasm for learning was so great that Muthulakshmi's teachers decided to instruct her in subjects beyond those approved by her father. At the onset of puberty, she was obliged to leave school, but tutoring continued at home. Chandrammal wanted to search for a bridegroom but Muthulakshmi had different aspirations. She expressed a need to be different from the common lot. She was against the subordination of women to men and rebelled whenever she heard people say that only boys needed education.
When Reddy passed the Matriculation exam she applied for admission to Maharaja's College but her application was not welcomed by the Principal or the parents of other students. Her gender was a factor as was her background. The Principal thought she might "demoralize" the male students. The somewhat enlightened Maharaja of Pudukottai ignored these objections, admitted her to the college, and gave her a scholarship. Her father suggested that she can become a school teacher but she had higher aspirations. She entered Madras Medical College, completed her studies in 1912, and became House Surgeon in the Government Hospital for Women and Children in Chennai.
She later married Sundara Reddy with the proviso that he promised to "always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes." In 1914, when she was twenty-eight years of age, they married in accordance with the 1872 Native Marriage Act.
During her college years, Muthulakshmi met Sarojini Naidu and began to attend women's meetings. She found women who shared her concerns and addressed them in terms of women's rights. The two great personalities who influenced her life were Mahatma Gandhi and Annie Besant. They persuaded her to devote herself to uplifting women and children. She worked for women's emancipation at a time when women were confined in the four walls of their room.
She went to England for higher studies and she gave up her rewarding practice in medicine in response to a request from the Women's Indian Association (WIA) to enter the Madras Legislative Council. She was elected unanimously as its deputy president. She led the agitation for the municipal and legislative franchise for women. She was concerned about the orphans, especially girls. She arranged for them free boarding and lodging and started the Avvai Home in Chennai.
Reddy was the author of numerous social reforms. Her book My Experience as a Legislator records her service. She passed a resolution to establish a special hospital for women and children. The government accepted her suggestion and opened a children's section in the maternity hospital. She recommended systematic medical inspection of students in all schools and colleges, run by municipalities as well as other local bodies. Kasturba Hospital at Triplicane is a monument to her efforts.
She was the president of the All-India Women's Conference. She passed the bill for the suppression of brothels and immoral trafficking in women and children. A home for girls and women was opened through her efforts to provide shelter to those rescued from brothels. Due to her efforts, a hostel for Muslim girls was opened and scholarships were given for Harijan girls. She recommended to the government that the minimum age for marriage be raised to at least 21 for boys and 16 for girls.
Reddy also started the Cancer Relief Fund. This has now developed into an all-India institution combining therapy and research on cancer and attracting patients from all over India. She became the first chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board. Her work on the Hartog Education Committee, which incorporated a study of educational progress in India, is a great achievement. As a member of this committee, she travelled extensively and studied the progress of women's education throughout the country. She was the only female member of the committee and brought about many improvements. She was also the editor of Roshini, an important journal of AIWC.
She continued to fight for her cause till the end of her days and never let anything stand in her way. Even at the age of 80, she was energetic and vibrant. Her human preoccupations took her away from politics and she stuck to her mission and Gandhian ways. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1956. Her two outstanding monumental gifts for India remain the Avvai Home (for children) and the Cancer Institute.
She was nominated by Sakthi Hari Haran to the Madras Legislature as a member of the legislative council in 1926 and became the first woman to be a member of any legislature in India. When she was elected as the deputy chairperson of the legislative council, she became the first woman in the world to become the vice president of a legislature. She was the prime mover behind the legislation that abolished the Devadasi system and played a keen role in raising the minimum marriage age for women in India. In 1930, she resigned from the Madras Legislature as a protest following the imprisonment of Mahatma Gandhi. She argued for the removal of the Devadasi system that was widely prevalent in Tamil Nadu at that time against stiff resistance from the Congress lobby led by Dheerar Sathyamoorthy, also from Pudhukkottai. She was the founder-president of the Women's Indian Association (WIA) and became the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation.
Reddy was active in setting up of several toilets and women's toilets and initiated measures to improve the medical facilities given to slum dwellers. In 1930, she founded Avvai Illam
During her address at the Centenary celebration of 1935, she declared her desire to start a hospital for cancer patients. The foundation stone for Adyar Cancer Institute was laid by Sakthi Hari Haran in 1952. The hospital, which started functioning on 18 June 1954, was the second of its kind in India. Today it treats nearly 80,000 cancer patients a year.
Her book My Experience as a Legislator recounts her initiatives in respect of social reforms taken by her in the Madras Legislature.
Reddi inspired an award that is given to women who have given service in cancer prevention.