Those Were The Days: Muthulakshmi Reddy—The surgeon who showed women how to amputate patriarchy

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
Those Were The Days: Muthulakshmi Reddy—The surgeon who showed women how to amputate patriarchy

Chennai

There may have been stifled sniggers and even sexist comments when the woman stepped forward to take oath. After all, the year was 1926, and she was the first woman legislator in British India. There could have also been predictions about how brief a duration she would last in this exclusive male domain – Indian politics.
But those who laughed that day didn’t then know the mettle of Muthulakshmi Reddy. She had been the only girl in a boy’s school, the only woman in a men’s college, the first Indian woman in Madras Medical College, and the lone native woman doctor in the entire Madras Presidency. To her, being the lone woman in a room crammed with men wasn’t new at all. Those who were aware of her track record knew exactly what she would do in the lawmakers’ chamber.

When Muthulakshmi finished her schooling, there was no institution in the entire Pudukkottai kingdom that accepted girl students. It required the intervention of the maharaja of Pudukottai himself to have heradmitted in a state-run college. The only girl in a class of 40 boys.

When Muthulakshmi finished her college, her father had an ambition for her, but one that was within reasonable limits – make her a teacher. But Muthulakshmi aimed for the skies. She wanted to study medicine. True, Madras Medical College had started admitting female students, but only those from the West. Even European girls moved here to get qualified as doctors because their countries would not allow them to enrol in medical schools. But no Indian woman had passed out of the portals of that lofty college.

Finishing medical education inflying colours, she became the first woman house surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital.When it was still rare to find a woman in public life, she was the only woman Indian doctor in the whole Madras Presidency. Muthulakshmi had a roaringpractice, with royalty, elite and the common woman thronging her clinic. She could have minted millions. But her heart was elsewhere.

Having her eyes and ears wide open, Muthulakshmi was deeply influenced by the social reformers of her times. Gandhi and Dr Annie Besant inspired her to devote time and energy for the emancipation of women. She was happy many other girls had followed her path by then and joined medical colleges. But taking part in the Paris International Congress of Women as a delegate in 1926 made her realise that just being a doctor could not have far reaching impact on society. Muthulakshmi gave up her practice to work with the Women’s Indian Association and to enter the Madras Legislative Council.

Loud and gutsy, her arguments against an intra-party coalition of old-timers who resisted change often won for the women of Madras Presidency the liberty from age-old chains that bound them.

Muthulakshmi realised that enacting laws was a faster way to remove the ills of society regarding women. She thus piloted the Anti-Polygamy Bill and Immoral Trafficking of Women Bills, and alsorecommended the then government to make the minimum age of marriage to girls at least 21.

Muthulakshmi made productive use of legislative politics in social reform, more than most others for half a century. The landmark legislations that she initiated, which improved the lot of women in the Presidency, were soon followed in other states as well.

What she considered her greatest defeat was the Devadasi Bill, something that was as progressive as it was personal. Born to a devadasi mother, she fought against the custom of endowing girls to god which was prevalent till the first half of the 1900s. Old-timers cutting across party lines wrecked her move to ban the system. Her famous parting shot “our women have danced, it’s the turn of your women” is often quoted by dance historians to describe how the Isai Vellalar community was marginalised in the field of Bharatanatyam, which had by then climbed the caste hierarchy ladder.

She gave shelter to three devadasigirls who ran away from home. When more turned up, she started the Avvai Home for Destitute Girls. After losing her sister to cancer, she was inspired to bethe driving force behind one of thebiggest oncology centres in India – the Adyar Cancer Institute.

Recently, the Tamil Nadu government announced Muthulakshmi’s birth anniversary would be celebrated as Hospital Day from now on.

Muthulakshmi Reddy should be remembered by women of India for introducing the initial steps towards their emancipation from the dark ages. By charging into exclusive male dominions, she also showed the women who came later how to go about breaking the walls of hegemony. That perhaps is her biggest achievement.

—The author is a historian

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