45 of the Greatest Women in India's History
Do you know who was the first female pilot from India? Or the first female freedom fighter? Have you heard about brave women like Chand Bibi and Obavva? In modern India, women have held high offices including that of the President and Prime Minister. Not only did these women make an impact on India, but they are also some of the most influential women in history.
Find out more about these extraordinary women here. I have arranged the list alphabetically.
My List of the Top Five Indian Women Who Changed History
I have included more than 40 women on this list, but I wanted to highlight five whose achievements changed the course of history.
- Anandi Gopal Joshi: She was the first female doctor in India and the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States.
- Indira Gandhi: She was the first and only woman to be the Prime Minister of India.
- Justice Anna Chandy: She was the first female judge in India.
- Kalpana Chawla: She was the first Indian woman in space and died tragically in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
- Mother Teresa: She dedicated her life to helping the poor and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
1. Ahilyabai Holkar: Queen of Malwa (1725 - 1795)
- Major Achievements: queen of Malwa; philosopher queen; ideal ruler
- Why I included her on this list: After the death of her husband Khanderao Holkar, Ahilyabai Holkar became the queen of Malwa (present-day Malwa falls into western Madhya Pradesh and southeastern Rajasthan). Under her, the capital of the kingdom was Maheshwar, which is now a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Her reign lasted for 30 years and she ruled with the utmost compassion and pride. During her time, the region prospered and scaled many new heights. She is often cited as the "philosopher queen" and an "absolute ideal ruler." She even personally led armies into battle. As a tribute, Indore's domestic airport and university are named after her.
"For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
"In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and bright her fame,
And Ahlya was her honoured name."— Joanna Baillie in 1849
2. Amrita Sher-Gil: Painter (1913 - 1941)
- Major Achievements: pioneer of modern Indian art
- Why I included her on this list: Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 and started painting at the age of eight. She is one of the pioneers of modern Indian art and was known as India's Frida Kahlo. She died at the early age of 28, but her artwork is still praised and sold for top dollar. She received recognition with her oil painting named Young Girls in 1932.
I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. India belongs only to me.— Amrita Sher-Gil
3. Anandi Gopal Joshi: First Female Doctor (1865 - 1887)
- Major achievements: First female doctor in India and the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States
- Why I included her on this list: Anandi died at a tender age of just 21. But before that, she became the first female physician in 1887. Her condition was deteriorating while she was in the second year of studies. Yet, she still completed her studies and returned to India. She was later diagnosed with tuberculosis, which ultimately caused her death. She opened the gates for many young Indian women who wanted to do more than devote their life to household chores.
4. Anasuya Sarabhai: Social Worker and Trade Union Leader (1885–1972)
- Major Achievements: Trailblazer in women's labour rights.
- Bio: Anasuya Sarabhai did her higher education at the London School of Economics. She could have settled in any foreign country and lead a life of comfort. But she chose India and helped women by advocating labour rights. She is the first female leader of a trade union in India. On her 132nd birthday, Google India celebrated with a doodle remembering her achievements.
5. Arati Saha: Long Distance Swimmer (1940-1994)
- Major Achievements: First Indian and Asian woman to swim across the English Channel in 1959; first female sportsperson to be awarded Padma Shri—the fourth highest civilian award in India—in 1960
- Bio: She completed this feat in 14 hours and 20 minutes in 1959. The distance which one has to swim is approximately 33 kilometers. Let that sink in!
6. Aruna Asaf Ali: Freedom Fighter (1909-1996)
- Major Achievements: Female leader of the Quit India Movement and a Bharat Ratna recipient.
- Bio: She was an active freedom fighter who came into prominence during the Quit India movement in 1942. Her flag hoisting during the movement at the August Kranti Maidan brought her to the forefront. Later, she became the third woman recipient of Bharat Ratna.
7. Asima Chatterjee: Scientist (1917-2006)
- Major Achievements: First female scientist in India; conducted research in organic chemistry and medicinal plants
- Why I included her on this list: Asima Chatterjee became the first female scientist in India when she received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She devoted her time extensively to developing anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She also wrote numerous research papers illustrating the medicinal properties of plants. Google honored her in 2017 on what would have been her 100th birthday with a doodle.
8. Begum Akhtar: Classical Singer (1914-1974)
- Major Achievements: Mallika-e-Ghazal, Padma Bhushan recipient
- Bio: Begum Akhtar is known as "Queen of Ghazals" in Indian classical singing circles. Most famous for ghazals, she also composed it. She is a Padma Bhushan awardee. Her death was rather tragic. During one of the performances in Kerala, she felt her voice was low and raised it with considerable stress. This resulted in her being rushed to the hospital. Just days later, she took her last breath on October, 30th, 1974.
9. Captain Prem Mathur: Commercial Pilot (1910-1992)
- Major Achievements: First female commercial pilot in India; winner of the National Air Race; first British-Indian woman pilot license holder
- Why I included her on this list: Captain Mathur was rejected by eight private airlines just because she was a woman. However, she finally landed a job at Deccan Airways. In the 1940s, most women were not even allowed to venture out of their home. The patriarchal system of our society didn't help. And then there were women like Prem Mathur who were committed to making a positive change.
10. Chand Bibi: Warrior Monarch of Bijapur (1550-599)
- Major Achievements: Defended Ahmednagar against Mughal emperor Akbar
- Description: One of the bravest women of her times, she successfully defended her throne when Akbar's forces invaded. In fact, she defended her reign twice. She was unfortunately killed in the third battle by her own companions as a rumor spread that Chand Bibi was joining hands with the Mughals.
11. Chandramukhi Basu: India's First Female Graduate (1860–1944)
- Major Achievements: First to obtain a Bachelor's degree in 1882 along with Kadambini Ganguly.
- Bio: Now, after so many years this will feel like a not so significant thing. But mind you, they achieved this at a time when the English ruled. Though, the English were never against women's education.
12. Cornelia Sorabji: Lawyer (1866-1954)
- Major Achievements: First female advocate in India
- Bio: She was also the first Indian to get admission to any British university. Upon returning India, she helped many women with legal matters.
13. Durga Bhabhi: Revolutionary Freedom Fighter (1907-1999)
- Major Achievements: Participated in an armed revolution against the British; famous for escaping with Bhagat Singh after Saunder's killing.
- Description: As I write this, I am getting the shivers just thinking of her bravado. It reminds me of the movie Rang De Basanti in which Soha Ali Khan did justice to her character.
14. Indira Gandhi: Iron Lady of India (1917-1984)
- Major Achievements: First and only female Prime Minister of India; first female recipient of the Bharat Ratna award
- Why I Included her on this list: Indira Gandhi served as Prime Minister from 1966-1977. She was a strong-willed, disciplined, and ruthless leader when it came to defending Indian interests. My father used to be a big fan of hers and collected various articles from newspapers and magazines. I too admire her. In my opinion, she is the most successful prime minister of India. Unfortunately, she was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, in response to her storming of the Golden Temple.
15. Ismat Chugtai: Urdu Literary Feminist (1915-1991)
- Major Achievements: Ghalib award, Filmfare award (best story), and Padma Shri
- Bio: She is considered the foremost Urdu writer who highlighted and wrote on female sexuality, femininity, and women rights. After tasting success in the literature world, she also wrote stories for mainstream cinema. Some of her notable films include Ziddi (1948), Aarzoo (1950), and Garam Hawa (1973).
16. Janaki Ammal: Scientist (1897-1984)
- Major Achievements: Conducted research on sugarcane and brinjal.
- Description: The sugarcane juice that you had the other day might have been cultivated from the research findings of this lady. So, next time you quench your thirst with a glass of sugarcane juice think of her.
17. Jijabai Shahaji Bhosale: Shivaji's Mother (1598-1674)
- Major Achievements: Ideal mother; Rajmata
- Description: There are many stories of Jijabai and her upbringing of Shivaji. It is her teachings that made Shivaji a warrior. Jijamata fostered Shivaji with faith, courage, and valour.
18. Justice Anna Chandy: High Court Judge (1905 - 1996)
- Major Achievement: First female judge in India; founded a magazine named Shrimati, which aimed to promote the cause of women’s rights
- Why I included her on this list: She achieved this feat in the pre-independence era in 1937. After independence, in 1948, she became a district court judge. After serving 11 years at that position, in 1959, she was promoted to the high court in Kerala. She wrote an autobiography, Atmakatha, that discussed her achievements and inspired future generations.
19. Mahaswetah Devi: Fiction Writer and Tribal Activist (1926-2016)
- Major Achievements: Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali), Padma Vibhushan
- Bio: Apart from making a name for herself with short stories, poetry, novels, etc., she was also a vocal advocate for the rights of tribal people. Her major works include Hazar Churashir Maa and Aranyer Adhikar.
20. Kalpana Chawla: Astronaut (1962-2003)
- Major Achievements: First Indian woman in space
- Why I included her on this list: I remember when Kalpana made her way onto the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 since it was a big moment in India's history. On that mission, she worked as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. At school, one of our assignments was to collect newspaper cutouts and write an essay on her. She, unfortunately, passed away in the infamous Columbia disaster in 2003 at the early age of 42.
21. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: Social Activist (1903-1988)
- Major Achievements: Padma Vibhushan recipient, received the Ramon Magsaysay award; first female candidate to run for a Legislative seat in India
- Why I included her on this list: Kamaladevi was a leader when it came to uplifting women. She did extensive work for women's rights and participated in the independence movement. Several cultural institutions in India today exist because of her vision, including the National School of Drama, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and the Crafts Council of India.
22. Kamala Das: Poetess and Columnist (1934 - 2009)
- Major Achievements: Sahitya Akademi Award; widely read columnist
- Bio: She came to the limelight when she got her autobiography published. The controversial nature of the book worked to her advantage. Many of her columns in major newspapers were widely circulated. She again courted controversy when she converted to Islam at the age of 65 after criticising Hinduism.
23. Chennamma: Queen of Kittur (1778 - 1829)
- Major Achievements: Female warrior and patriot; led an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in 1824
- Why I included her on this list: When the British started annexing the many princely states of India, she was one of the first people who resisted it. She defended her state for quite some time but, unfortunately, troops could not sustain the continued assault. Eventually, she was captured and imprisoned until her death.
24. Laxmibai: Rani of Jhansi (1828 - 1858)
- Major Achievements: Prominent personality in India's first war of Independence (1857)
- Why I included her on this list: She formed a volunteer army consisting not just of men, but also women. Her sacrifices made her an icon of the Indian Independence Movement. Read the poem below that captures the essence of her courage. Note that this is just an excerpt.
No one knew if she was Laxmi or Goddess Durga,
She was an epitome of bravery,
Her sword skills even awed the great Marathas.— My translation from a poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan about Laxmi.
25. Lakshmi Sahgal: Freedom Fighter (1914 - 2012)
- Major Achievements: Senior leader in the Indian National Army; Padma Vibhushan.
- Description: You must have seen photos of Subhash Chandra Bose and his army. In most photos, you'll find this young lady as she is Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan.
26. Lata Mangeshkar: Voice of the Millennium (1929 - )
- Major achievements: Most-Awarded Indian singer; Bharat Ratna recipient; and Legion of Honor recipient
- Why I included her on this list: She is known all over the world for her melodious voice. Her career began in 1942 and has spanned over six and a half decades. There has never been a singer like her and never will be. She has sung thousands of songs and her versatility in singing is unquestioned.
27. M. S. Subbulakshmi: Carnatic Singer (1916 - 2004)
- Major Achievements: Queen of music; the second woman to receive Bharat Ratna.
- Description: She dedicated her life to classical singing that showed the world the tradition of India. Jawaharlal Nehru regarded her as the "queen of music" after seeing her perform live.
28. Madam Bhikaiji Cama: Freedom Fighter (1861 - 1936)
- Major Achievements: Prominent leader in the independence struggle
- Description: Madam Cama was fierce in her approach and never batted an eye when it came to going the extra mile—so much so that she contracted the plague while helping other patients. Fortunately, she survived and continued her nationalistic activities until her death in 1936.
29. Matangini Hazra: Revolutionary Leader (1870 - 1942)
- Major Achievements: Indian freedom fighter
- Description: The history books that you studied in school do not mention her, but until her last breath, she participated in various movements organized for attaining complete freedom.
30. Mother Teresa: Founder of Missionaries of Charity (1910 - 1997)
- Major achievements: Known for her extensive work for the poor; Bharat Ratna recipient; first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979
- Why I included her on this list: She dedicated her life to working for the poor people of India. She received many awards in India and elsewhere in the world. Through her Missionary of Charities organisation, she personally cared for thousands of sick and dying people in Calcutta. She also worked tirelessly 24/7 to eradicate poverty and improve lives around the world. She is frequently featured on any list of "women who changed the world."
31. Onake Obavva: Female Warrior (18th Century)
- Major Achievements: Fought troops of Hyder Ali (Sultan of Mysore) all alone
- Description: The story of her single-handedly killing forces of Hyder Ali is now a part of the folklore. She killed Hyder Ali's army with a pestle when she saw them, effectively saving Chitradurga Fort from getting captured.
32. Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati: Social Reformer (1858 - 1922)
- Major Achievements: Titled Pandita for her knowledge of Sanskrit at an early age; Saravasti for her scholarly work by Calcutta University
- Description: She also participated in the freedom movement but was largely known for her advocacy of women's rights.
33. Rani Abbakka Chowta: Tuluva Queen (1525 - 1570s)
- Major Achievements: Regarded as the first female freedom fighter of India; fearless queen.
- Description: Before the British came to set East India company, it was the Portuguese who as well came to capture several parts of India. Queen Abakka defended her kingdom for more than 40 years.
34. Rani Avantibai: Queen of Lodhi and a Freedom Fighter (1800 - 1858)
- Major Achievements: Participated in the 1857 revolt
- Description: Avantibai became the queen when her husband fell ill. But she was more than capable of handling the affairs. She is often compared to Rani of Jhansi and Kittur Chenamma.
35. Rani Padmavati: Queen of Chittor (13th - 14th Century)
- Major Achievements: Defended Rajput pride by self-immolation when Alauddin Khalji wanted to capture her
- Description: She is technically not an Indian since she was born in Sri Lanka. However, in her time, it was all Hindustan so she was a Hindustani, of course. There are so many stories of her beauty and courage that you could write a book.
36. Rudrama Devi: Monarch Ruler of Kakatiya Dynasty (12th Century)
- Major Achievements: Historically known as Maharaja, though she was a queen.
- Description: As one of the most powerful female rulers of the Kakatiya dynasty, she saved her kingdom from many invasion attempts. History remembers her with exceptional qualities with no one coming close to her personality.
37. Razia Sultan: Queen of Delhi Sultanate (1205 - 1240)
- Major Achievements: First and only female ruler of India
- Bio: Some may disagree that she was the only female ruler of India. Undoubtedly, she was the first. She ruled the Delhi Sultanate for a short period of four years. Her rule of law was overturned when she fell in love with Yakut (a slave in her kingdom). Her death still remains shrouded in mystery. There are claims of at least three places of her burial in Kaithal, Tonk, and Delhi.
38. Rukmini Devi Arundale: Indian Classical Dancer (1904 - 1986)
- Major Achievements: Revived Bharatnatyam; Padma Bhusha; and the first woman to be nominated in Rajya Sabha.
- Description: She is also featured in the list of the top 100 people who shaped India. Rukmini Devi also devoted time towards animal welfare and rights. She was once offered the post of President of India by Morarji Desai, but she chose dance over the highest office in India.
39. Sarla Thakral: First Indian Woman to Fly an Aircraft (1914 - 2008)
- Major Achievements: The first woman to get her pilot license and clock more than 1000 hours of flying
- Why I included her on this list: Sarla Thakral was only 21 years old when she received her license to fly an aircraft. She was working towards getting licensed when her husband died in a plane crash. In her later life, she became a painter and also designed clothes, jewelry, etc.
40. Savitribai Phule: Women's Rights Activist (1831 - 1897)
- Major Achievements: Started the first girl's school with her husband; opened a care center for pregnant rape victims
- Why I included her on this list: Married at the age of nine, Savitri saw firsthand the plight of girls her age. This inspired her to start the first all women's school in 1848. She was also the first teacher at the school. She also opened a care center named Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha for pregnant rape victims and helped to deliver their children. She brought about many social reforms and changed the mindsets of many. The University of Pune is renamed after her—it's now known as Savitribai Phule Pune University.
41. Sitara Devi: Classical Dancer (1920 - 2014)
- Major Achievements: Empress of Dance (Nritya Samragni); Kathak queen
- Description: She propagated the Kathak style of dancing and did shows all around the world. On her 97th birthday, Google India dedicated its homepage by showing a doodle on her.
42. Sarojini Naidu: Freedom Fighter and Poet (1879 - 1949 )
- Major achievements: Known as the "The Nightingale of India;" second Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and the first to be appointed an Indian state governor
- Why I included her on this list: Sarojini Naidu, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, founded the Women's India Association in 1917. Having been the President of Indian National Congress in 1925, she participated in the freedom struggle. Two years before her death, India finally gained its independence as a sovereign nation, becoming the largest democracy in the world. She is also remembered for her books, including The Broken Wing and The Gift of India.
43. Tarabai: Regent of Maratha Empire (1675 - 1761 )
- Major Achievements: Defended the Maratha empire against the Mughals
- Description: Tarabai led her army and successfully defended it against foreign powers. The widowed queen was brought to the forefront when her husband Rajaram Bhosle died. She was a genius strategist with immense political acumen.
44. Usha Mehta: Gandhian Freedom Fighter (1920 - 2000)
- Major Achievements: Padma Vibhushan and host of the secret Congress Radio during Quit India movement.
- Description: She participated in the independence struggle and was jailed for six months for hosting a secret radio show, which provided information to various leaders who fought against the British. After independence, she became a lecturer at the University of Bombay. Usha Mehta advocated Gandhi's philosophy and teachings throughout her life.
45. Velu Nachiyar: Queen of Sivaganga Estate (1730 - 1796)
- Major Achievements: First South Indian queen to fight against the East India Company of British
- Description: Aaptly nicknamed Veeramangai—which translates into a brave woman—she successfully fought British by forming an alliance with nearby kings of princely states. Legend has it that the British never came back to conquer her kingdom while she ruled.
I did extensive research to write this article. Hope you like it and have discovered many new great personalities and are inspired by them.
Questions & Answers
Who was the first Indian woman to win gold in the Asian Games?
Kamaljeet Sandhu was the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in the Asian Games. She achieved this in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games when she ran a distance of 400 meters in 57.3 seconds.Helpful 9
© 2017 Kannan Reddy