Savitribai Phule, whose 186th birth anniversary is being commemorated today with a Google doodle, was a trailblazer, a visionary far ahead of her time. For 21st-century sceptics, who are offended by the label of feminism, she should be a shining example of courage in the face of adversity.
Born this day in 1831 to a family of farmer in Naigaon, Maharashtra, Savitribai was a poet, social reformer and educationist, responsible for revolutionising women's education. A campaigner for women's rights, she waged lifelong battles against social evils like child marriage, sati (ritual self-immolation of Hindu widows at their husband's pyres) and patriarchy in general.
Married off to Jyotiba Phule when she was only 9 (and he was 12), she did not have children of her own but adopted Yashvantrao, son of a widowed Brahmin. In the 19th century, such practices were scoffed at, though familial objection did not deter the Phules from striking out on their own.
Savitribai went on to establish the first school for women in Bhidewada, Pune (a seat of Brahmanism) and become the first woman teacher in the country. Even more radically, her kept her establishment open to women from all castes. She would build 18 such schools in her lifetime in the region.
In all her endeavours, whether it was building a well for lower caste people to fight casteist patriarchy or in her pursuit of women's causes, Savitribai was joined by her husband, who educated her at home.
The Phules started a 'home for the prevention of infanticide' in their own house in 1863 to create a refuge for widows who had been victims of sexual exploitation. They also took in rape survivors and other women who, after becoming pregnant, either killed themselves or their newborn for fear of social banishment.
Savitribai died of infection while taking care of patients during the third global pandemic of the bubonic plague in 1897. The Government of Maharashtra instituted an award in her name to honour women social reformers. A stamp was also released to commemorate her in 1998. The University of Pune was renamed Savitribai Phule University in 2014.
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