Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi – Her conviction and determination to make a change has touched the lives of many people.
This is the story of a woman who made it a point not just to question the wrongs of society but also found solutions to fix it. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi was born on 30th July 1886 to Devdasi Chandrammal and Narayanaswamy in Pudukuttai, Tamil Nadu. Her father’s family cut all ties with them as he married a devdasi. This gave her an opportunity to become close with her maternal side. This closeness made her think a lot about the devdasi community and their issues.
The devadasi system is a practice in which parents marry their daughters to a deity or a temple before she attains puberty. Later, these girls were forced to become dancers and musicians in the temple itself. Early in life, she was clear that she would “correct the balance” and fight for gender equality on moral standards.
She fought against her mother’s decision to marry her off at puberty and went on to become the first woman from Pudukkottai to be admitted to the Maharaja’s High School – she was given admission by the Maharaja himself, despite severe resistance. The Maharaja’s High School was a school solely for boys and many parents threatened to remove their children from the school if she enrolled there.
After she completed her undergraduate studies she went on to get successfully admitted into the Madras Medical College, where she was the first woman to be given admission in the Department of Surgery.
It is here that she met Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant and their friendship was a huge positive influence on her. She then went on to pursue higher education in England.
She later married Dr. Sundara Reddy on the understanding that he promises 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.
Muthulakshmi had many firsts to her name. She was 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. Her line of achievements tells us a lot about her personality and her attitude. Her will to make a change was so profound that there was no looking back ever since the first step.
Her contributions to the upliftment of women in society are manifold such as the Adyar Cancer Institute and the Avvai Home. She started the Avvai home for girls who stood up for themselves and ran away from their home when they were forced into the Devdasi System. She started the Adyar Cancer Institute when she lost a cousin to cancer and was so moved by that incident that she decided to do something for cancer victims.
She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1956 by the Government of India in recognition of her distinguished service.
Her service and work make her one of India’s prominent feminists. Her conviction and determination to make a change has touched the lives of many people and the fruits of her efforts are being reaped by the generations that have followed her. Her values are her legacy and are what make her an inspiration and an epitome of strength, resilience, and support.