Madras Week: 6 women who broke barriers & uplifted Chennai

In this particular article, we take a look at the women of Madras who played a significant role in the city's evolution, broke barriers of tradition, and fought patriarchy like a superwoman.
(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani MuthuWikipedia

CHENNAI: August 22 marked the founding day of Madras (now Chennai) and this year the city turned 383 years old. Several Chennaiites are celebrating the city's pride by sharing photos and their thoughts on social media, but in this particular piece, we take a look at the womens of the city who played a significant role in the city's evolution, broke barriers of tradition and fought patriarchy like a superwoman.

(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
Women from history who helped shape nascent city of madras

Lourdammal Simon


Born on 26 September 1912, Lourdammal Simon was the first woman minister from the Mukkuva community who handled the Local Governance and Fisheries portfolios under then Chief Minister, Kumaraswami Kamaraj. She developed an interest in politics due to her husband and was a former Member of the Legislative Assembly and Minister for Local Administration and Fisheries of Madras State during 1957–1962.

She was elected to the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly as an Indian National Congress candidate from the Colachel constituency in the Kanniyakumari district in the 1957 election and served as the Local Administration and Fisheries minister in the second Kamaraj cabinet.

(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
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Annai Meenambal Shivaraj


Born on 26 December 1904 to Mr VG Vasudevapillai and Meenakshi, Annai Meenambal Sivaraj was the first Scheduled Caste women president of the South India Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF). Coming from a family of renowned Dalit revolutionaries, Meenambal was one of the most prominent figures in Indian dalit history and fought for the inclusion of Dalit women at the national forefront.

She grew up in Rangoon in Myanmar and her family had fled to the foreign country from Tamil Nadu due to caste oppression. She presided over the SCF Women's Conference held at Madras, in 1944, which was attended by BR Ambedkar and also presided over the All India SCF Women's Conference held in Bombay, on 6 May 1945.

Fondly called 'Annai', Meenambal was the one who bestowed EV Ramasamy with the endearing name “Periyar” during a conference and was one of the radical feminist leaders of the Self-Respect Movement (started in 1925 by EV Ramasamy). In 1937, Meenambal presided over the Tinnelveli District Third Adi Dravida Conference.

Sathyavani Muthu


Sathyavani Muthu was a politician and an influential leader from Chennai, who was one of the major contributors to the Dravidian and the Ambedkar movements. She was a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu, Rajya Sabha member, and Union Minister. She began her political career as a member of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, during which she was even arrested for leading the DMK's protests against the Kula Kalvi Thittam. She began her own party, Thazhthapattor Munnetra Kazhagam, and later joined Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. In the late 1990s, she again joined DMK.

She also served as the editor of the magazine 'Annai' and contested assembly elections from Perambur and Ulundurpet constituencies in all assembly elections between 1957 and 1977 and 1984. She won three times from the Perambur constituency as an Independent candidate in the 1957 election, and as a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate in 1967, and 1971 elections, but, lost the 1962 election from Perambur and the 1977 election from the Ulundurpet constituency.

From 1967 to 1969, she served as a minister for Harijan welfare and Information during C. N. Annadurai administration in Tamil Nadu and again served as a Harijan welfare minister in M. Karunanidhi administration till 1974. From 3 April 1978 to 2 April 1984, she served as a Rajya Sabha member as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam representative and served as a Union Minister in Chaudhary Charan Singh's ministry from 19 August 1979 to 23 December 1979. She along with Bala Pajanor were the first two non-Congress Dravidian parties Tamil Nadu politicians to serve in the Union ministry.

(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
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Akkamma Devi


Born on September 5, 1918, in Bearhutty village, Akkamma Devi was an Indian politician and member of the Indian National Congress political party under Indira Gandhi. Devi served in the 3rd Lok Sabha for the Nilgiris from 1962 to 1967, becoming the first woman to represent that constituency. She was chosen to run for the seat by Chief Minister of Madras (now known as Tamil Nadu) K Kamaraj.

Being the first woman graduate of the Badaga community and from the Nilgiris, During her tenure, she was appointed as a member of the Public Accounts Committee for two years and was the only woman member of that committee. Her political career came to halt when DMK came to power in 1967.

Devi also voiced her concerns on the wage allowance of tea plantation workers, where she fought for equal pay rights for the male and female plantation workers and broke many taboo customs of her community such as not getting her nose pierced and not staying in ‘olluvugudi’, an enclosure for menstruating women.

RS Subbulakshmi


Born in 1886 in the remote Thanjavur village of Rishiyur, RS Subbalakshmi was a social reformer and educationist in India. She was an important voice against child marriage during the 20th century and had set up schools and centers to support women and children especially, she was involved in setting up a social welfare center for women and children in Madambakkam village. near Tambaram, in 1954.

Being the first Hindu woman to graduate from the Madras Presidency, she was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1952, where she served until 1956. She made efforts to abolish child marriage and to encourage the education of girls and actively supported the Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed in 1930, and appeared before the Joshi committee. After retirement, she was involved in the activities of the Women's Indian Association, through which she befriended Annie Besant and others.

(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
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Saminathan Dharmambal


Born in 1890 at Thanjavur to Saminathan Chettiyar and Pappammal, Saminathan Dharmambal was an Indian social activist and women's rights activist. She is remembered for her contributions to the Tamil language and involvement in the Anti-Hindi agitation of 1937–40. In 1951, she was given the title of ‘Veera Tamizh Thaai’ (brave Tamil mother).

She was the secretary of the Tamil Women's Association, which was instrumental in safeguarding women's rights and education for girls, and supported Muthulakshmi Reddi's attempt to abolish the Devadasi system through legislation. Additionally, she also actively participated in the Self-Respect Movement but was more prominent for her Manavar Mandram (students’ forum) through which she promoted Tamil education.

(From left) Annai Meenambal Shivaraj, RS Subbulakshmi and Sathyavani Muthu
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