An Anniversary and a New Focus—Savitribai Phule

2022 is the tenth anniversary of this blog. It is hard to believe that I’ve written almost 300 posts—287 to be exact. I hope to hit 300 this year. As I wrote in my first post in February 2012, I started this blog to share my ideas about the connections I have found with the men and women who went before us. From the beginning I have concentrated on women because their lives and ideas have often been neglected.  

As I look back over my posts, I see many familiar names spanning a wide history. I’ve written about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian “female pharaoh” who was born about 1485 BC and about Greta Thunberg who was born in 2003. That’s quite a range of time, but I’ve not ranged as widely in geography. Most of the women in my posts lived either in the United States or Europe. This year I am going to cast a wider net and include more women who lived in Asia, Africa, and other places on our globe. Even though I have travelled widely and visited countries around the world, I know far less than I should about their histories and peoples. This year I’ll try to broaden my vision.

Savitribai Phule is an important figure in the history of India. Born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra province, she is remembered now and honored as the country’s first female teacher. Her family belonged to the Mali caste, whose members traditionally grow flowers, spices, and other crops. Although Savitribai’s family was prosperous, they did not consider it appropriate to educate women, so she was illiterate when she married Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was a reformer and a strong believer in education. One of his first projects was to teach his young wife to read.

Phule Savitribai and Jyotirao

Savitribai studied with her husband and soon realized that education was the key for improving the lives of all women, especially those of the lower castes. With her husband’s support, Savitribai attended a teacher-training institute and later the two of them set up a school for girls. Soon they were running four schools for—the first schools for girls in India that were run by Indians. When they started to enroll girls from the lower castes—at that time called untouchables—however, both Savitribai and Jyotirao encountered strong opposition from many Brahmins and other higher caste Indians.

 Opponents to women’s education told Jyotirao that he would die young because he had allowed his wife to be educated. They claimed that educated women might use their skill to write letters to men outside of the family. Some protesters did not stop at making predictions. They also followed Savitribai as she walked back and forth to school and threw rotten fruit and dung at her to frighten her away from teaching. But the young couple was not deterred. They persisted in keeping their schools open and eventually they had 150 or more girls enrolled.

 Savitribai and her husband worked all of their lives to make life better for people born into the lower castes, and especially women. They introduced the name “dalit” instead of “untouchable” and helped people to enjoy the benefits of education and enjoy a more satisfying life. They campaigned against child marriage and called for better treatment for widows.

Even in the midst of her busy life, Savitribai found time to write and publish several volumes of poetry. After Jyotirao’s death, Savitribai continued his work with the help of their adopted son. When the bubonic plague struck India in 1897, she and her son set up a clinic to help victims of the plague. Savitribai died while doing this work.

Today Savitribai’s birthday on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Din in the province of Maharashtra, especially in girls’ schools. In 1998 she was honored by being the first Indian woman to appear on a postage stamp.

English language information about Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is not widely available in American libraries, but there are a number of videos about this extraordinary couple posted on YouTube. Most of the films are produced in India and narrated in Hindi, but some have English subtitles. One that I enjoyed very much is Episode 45 of Bharat Ek Khoj entitled Savitribai

Savitribai Phule is remembered in India, but her life and work deserve to be known throughout the world.