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Great Indian Women
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 50 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 / Indore (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.
A Tribute Poem to Ahilyabai Holkar
"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. Abala Bose: Social Worker (1865 - 1951)
- Major accomplishments: Known for her efforts in the advancement of women’s education and her contribution towards the alleviation of the condition of widows
- Why I included her on this list: Abala Bose was an early feminist and frequently wrote about why women needed more education and stressed that women's minds were just as important as men's. Later in her life, she set up the Nari Shiksha Samiti, a nonprofit whose mission was to educate girls and women. She also opened a home for widows and a rehabilitation center for women.
3. Amrita Sher-Gil: Painter (1913 - 1941)
- Major achievement: 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
4. 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 (just before her 22nd birthday). 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.
Read More From Owlcation
Be grateful for challenges because...had there been no difficulties and no thorns in the way, then [each woman and] man would have been in his primitive state and no progress made in civilisation and mental culture.
— Anandi Gopal Joshi
5. Anasuya Sarabhai: Social Worker and Trade Union Leader (1885 - 1972)
- Major achievement: Trailblazer in women's labour rights
- Why I included her on this list: Anasuya Sarabhai completed her higher education at the London School of Economics. She could have settled in any foreign country and led a life of comfort. But she chose India where she helped women by advocating for labour rights. She founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, India's oldest union of textile workers, in 1920, becoming the first female leader of a trade union in India. On her 132nd birthday, Google India celebrated with a doodle remembering her achievements.
One morning, I was sitting outside in the compound combing out the children’s hair when I saw a group of 15 workers passing by as if in a trance. I called them and asked them, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so listless?’ They said, “Behen, we have just finished 36 hours of work… We have worked for two nights and a day without a break, and now we are on our way home. These words filled me with horror. This was no different than the kind of slavery women faced!
— Anasuya Sarabhai
6. 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
- Why I included her on this list: She completed this feat in 14 hours and 20 minutes in 1959. at the age of 19. The distance across the Channel is approximately 33 kilometers. Let that sink in!
7. Aruna Asaf Ali: Freedom Fighter (1909 - 1996)
- Major achievements: Female leader of the Quit India Movement and a Bharat Ratna recipient.
- Why I included her on this list: She was an active freedom fighter who came into prominence during the Quit India movement in 1942. Her hoisting the flag during the movement at the August Kranti Maidan brought her to the forefront. She became Delhi's first mayor in 1958. Later, she became the third female recipient of Bharat Ratna, receiving it posthumously in 1997.
I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.
— Aruna Asaf Ali
8. 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.
9. Begum Akhtar: Classical Singer (1914 - 1974)
- Major achievements: Mallika-e-Ghazal, Padma Bhushan recipient
- Why I included her on this list: Begum Akhtar is known as "Queen of Ghazals" in Indian classical singing circles. Most famous for ghazals, she also composed them. She is also a Padma Bhushan recipient. Her death was rather tragic. During one of the performances in Kerala, she raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing had not been as good as she had wanted it to be and felt unwell. The stress she put on herself under resulted in her falling ill, and she was rushed to the hospital. Just days later, she took her last breath on October, 30th, 1974.
People don't want to listen to an imitation. If they want to listen to my style, they will go and buy my records.
— Begum Akhtar
10. Begum Hazrat Mahal: Begum of Awadh (1820 - 1879)
- Major achievements: Took control of Awadh after her husband was exiled; rebelled against the British East India Company during the Indian Mutiny of 1857
- Why I included her on this list: Mahal was shrewd and took charge of the state of affairs of Awadh after her husband was exiled to Calcutta. She and a band of supporters rebelled against the Britsh in 1857, and she was able to take control of Lucknow as well. She had planned for her son to take over Awadh, but she had to abandon those plans when the British recaptured Lucknow. She retreated to Nepal where she died in 1879.
The tongue pierces deeper than the spear.
— Begum Hazrat Mahal
11. 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.
12. Chand Bibi: Warrior Monarch of Bijapur (1550 - 1599)
- Major achievement: Defended Ahmednagar against Mughal emperor Akbar
- Why I included her on this list: 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 rumors spread that she was joining hands with the Mughals.
13. Chandramukhi Basu: India's First Female Graduate (1860 - 1944)
- Major achievement: One of the first two female graduates of the British Empire in 1882 along with Kadambini Ganguly
- Why I included her on this list: Now, this may not feel like a significant thing. But mind you, they achieved this at a time when the English ruled. Though, the English were never against women's education.
14. Cornelia Sorabji: First Female Lawyer (1866 - 1954)
- Major achievements: First female advocate in India; first woman to study law at Oxford University
- Why I included her on this list: Cornelia Sorabji was admitted to Oxford in 1892, a milestone that predates the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Upon returning India, she helped many women with legal matters. It's been discovered that she helped nearly 600 clients over the course of her career, which is no small feat given the obstacles he had to overcome.
15. Dr. Rakhmabai: Physician and Feminist (1864 - 1955)
- Major achievement: One of the first practicing women doctors in India; part of a landmark case that ultimately resulted in the enactment of the Age of Consent Act in 1891
- Why I included her on this list: Along with Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, Dr. Rakhmabai was one of the first women to practice medicine in India after receiving her degree from the London School of Medicine for Women. She was also part of a high-profile court case after refusing to move in with her future husband's family at the tender age of 12 (her step-father supported her decision). The judge ruled in favor of her prospective husband, but she still refused. Her defiance brought about a discussion of the practice of child brides and consent. In 1891, legislation was enacted that changed the age of consent from 10 to 12 years across British India. Dr. Rakhmabai practiced medicine until her retirement in 1929.
16. Durga Bhabhi (Durgavati Devi): 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
- Why I included her on this list: 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. Durga Bhabhi was one of just a few women who participated in an armed revolution against the British.
17. 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.
There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.
— Indira Gandhi
18. Ismat Chugthai: Urdu Literary Feminist (1915 - 1991)
- Major achievements: Recipient of the Ghalib award, Filmfare award (best story), and Padma Shri
- Why I included her on this list: Ismat Chugthai is considered the first 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).
She sat quietly in one corner of the sofa, the end of her sari drawn modestly over her hair. Like the motionless illusion of a madly spinning top, she was staring vacantly into space.
— Excerpt from "The Quilt & Other Stories" by Ismat Chughtai
19. Janaki Ammal: Scientist (1897 - 1984)
- Major Achievements: conducted research on sugarcane and eggplants (brinjal); first Indian woman with a Ph.D. in botany
- Why I included her on this list: The sugarcane juice that you had the other day might have been cultivated from the research findings of this lady. In India, she created a new kind of sugarcane which could grow well within the country, and which was considered good enough to put India on the sugarcane map. So next next time you quench your thirst with a glass of sugarcane juice, think of her.
20. Jijabai Shahaji Bhosale: Shivaji's Mother (1598-1674)
- Major achievements: Ideal mother; Rajmata
- Why I included her on this list: There are many stories of Jijabai and her upbringing of Shivaji, founder of Maratha Empire. It is her teachings that made Shivaji a warrior. Jijamata fostered Shivaji with faith, courage, and valor.
21. Justice Anna Chandy: First Female High Court Judge (1905 - 1996)
- Major achievements: 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.
22. Mahaswetah Devi: Fiction Writer and Tribal Activist (1926-2016)
- Major achievements: Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali), Padma Vibhushan recipient
- Why I included her on this list: 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.
The only way to counter globalization is to have a plot of land in some central place, keep it covered in grass, let there be a single tree, even a wild tree. Let your son's tricycle lie there. Let some poor child come and play, let a bird come and use the tree. Small things. Small dreams.
— Mahaswetah Devi
23. Kalpana Chawla: Astronaut (1962 - 2003)
- Major achievement: 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. 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. On that mission, she worked as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator.
When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.
— Kalpana Chawla
24. 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.
25. Kamala Das: Poetess and Columnist (1934 - 2009)
- Major achievements: Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award; widely read columnist
- Why I included her on this list: She moved 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.
Getting a man to love you is easy
Only be honest about your wants as
Woman. Stand nude before the glass with him
So that he sees himself the stronger one
And believes it so, and you so much more
Softer, younger, lovelier. Admit your
— Kamala Suraiyya Das
26. Kittur 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.
27. Lakshmi Sahgal: Freedom Fighter (1914 - 2012)
- Major achievements: Senior leader in the Indian National Army; Padma Vibhushan recipient
- Why I included her on this list: I'm sure you've seen photos of Subhash Chandra Bose and his army, which will almost include this young lady as she was Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan. Lakshmi had many roles in her life, including a doctor, revolutionary, and political candidate (she ran for President in 2002 but lost).
28. Lata Mangeshkar: Voice of the Millennium (1929 - )
- Major achievements: Most-Awarded Indian singer; Bharat Ratna recipient; 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.