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Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (30 July 1886, Madras – 22 July 1968) was an eminent medical practitioner, social reformer and Padma Bhushan awardee in India. She was the first woman legislator in India.
Muthulakshmi Reddy was appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. For her, this nomination marked the beginning of her lifelong effort to “correct the balance” for women by removing social abuses and working for equality in moral standards. She was one of the women pioneers who stood for the cause of liberating India from the British. She was a women’s activist and a social reformer.
Muthulakshmi had many firsts to her recognition. 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.
Muthulakshmi was born in the princely state of Pudukottai of Tamil Nadu. In spite of various constraints faced by girls in India of her time, she completed her higher education, and was admitted into the medical profession. In 1907, she joined the Madras Medical College, where she achieved a brilliant academic record. With several gold medals and prizes to her credit, Muthulakshmi graduated in 1912 to become one of the first woman doctors in India. Soon thereafter, she came under the influence of Annie Besant, and then of Mahatma Gandhi.
Her father was S. Narayanasami Iyer, the principal of Maharaja’s College. Her mother was Chandrammal. S. Narayanasami broke with tradition and sent Muthulakshmi to school. Her enthusiasm for learning was so great that Muthulakshmi’s teachers decided to instruct her in subjects beyond those approved by her father. At the onset of puberty she was obliged to leave school, but tutoring continued at home. Chandrammal wanted to search for a bridegroom but Muthulakshmi had different aspirations. She expressed a need to be a different woman from the common lot. She pitied women for their subordination to men and inwardly rebelled whenever she heard people say that only boys needed education.
When Muthulakshmi passed the matriculation exam she applied for admission to Maharaja’s College but her application was not welcomed by the principal, or the parents of other students. Her gender was a factor and so was her background. The principal thought she might “demoralize” the male students. The somewhat enlightened Maharaja of Pudukottai ignored these objections, admitted her to the college, and gave her a scholarship. Her father suggested she become a school teacher but she had higher aspirations. She entered Madras Medical College, completed her studies in 1912, and became house surgeon in the Government Hospital for Women and Children in Chennai.
She later married Dr. Sundara Reddy on the demand that he promise 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.
She is the aunt of the Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and she was quoted as an inspiration by him early in his life.
During her college years, Muthulakshmi met Sarojini Naidu and began to attend women’s meetings. She found women who shared her personal concerns and addressed them in terms of women’s rights. The two great personalities who influenced her life were Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Annie Besant. They persuaded her to devote herself to uplifting women and children. She worked for women’s emancipation at a time when women were confined in the four walls of their room.
Muthulakshmi went to England for higher studies and she gave up her rewarding practice in medicine in response to a request from the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) to enter the Madras Legislative Council. She was elected unanimously as its deputy president. She led the agitation for municipal and legislative franchise for women. She was concerned about the orphans, especially girls. She arranged for them free boarding and lodging and started the Avvai Home in Chennai.
Muthulakshmi was the author of numerous social reforms. Her book My Experience as a Legislator records her service. She passed a resolution to establish a special hospital for women and children. The government accepted her suggestion and opened a children’s section in the maternity hospital. She recommended systematic medical inspection of students in all schools and colleges, run by municipalities as well as other local bodies. Kasturba Hospital at Triplicane is a monument to her efforts.
Muthulakshmi Reddy was the president of the All-India Women’s Conference. She passed the bill for the suppression of brothels and immoral trafficking in women and children. A home for girls and women was opened through her efforts to provide shelter to those rescued from brothels. Due to her efforts a hostel for Muslim girls was opened and scholarships were given for Harijan girls. She recommended to the government that the minimum age for marriage be raised to at least 21 for boys and 16 for girls.
Muthulakshmi also started the Cancer Relief Fund. This has now developed into an all-India institution combining therapy and research on cancer and attracting patients from all over India. She became the first chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board. Her work on the Hartog Education Committee, which incorporated a study of educational progress in India, is a great achievement. As a member of this committee she travelled extensively and studied the progress of women’s education throughout the country. She was the only woman member of the committee and brought about many improvements. She was also the editor of Roshini, an important journal of AIWC.
Muthulakshmi Reddy continued to fight for her cause till the end of her days and never let anything stand in her way. Even at the age of 80, she was energetic and vibrant. Her human preoccupations took her away from politics and she stuck to her mission and Gandhian ways. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1956. Her two outstanding monumental gifts for humanity remain the Avvai Home (for children) and the Cancer Institute.
She was nominated by Sakthi Hari Haran to the Madras Legislature as a member of the legislative council in 1926, and became the first woman to be a member of any legislature in India. When she was elected as the deputy chairperson of the legislative council, she became the first woman in the world to become the vice president of a legislature. She was the prime mover behind the legislation that abolished the Devadasi system and played a keen role in raising the minimum marriage age for women in India. In 1930, she resigned from the Madras Legislature as a protest following the imprisonment of Mahatma Gandhi. She argued for the removal of the Devadasi system that was widely prevalent in Tamil Nadu at that time against stiff resistance from the Congress lobby led by Sathyamoorthy Aiyar. She was the founder-president of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) and became the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation.
Dr Reddy was actively involved with setting up of several toilets and women’s toilets, and initiated measures to improve the medical facilities given to slum dwellers. In 1930, she founded Avvai, a home for destitute women and orphans at Besant Avenue, Adyar. As an MLC, she introduced a scheme of free education for girls up to class eight.