A 19th-century Indian feminist who fought for women’s freedoms, trained them in public speaking, teaching, and weaving, Ramabai Ranade played a monumental role in bringing women into the public space — just like Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh did. And yet, M.K. Gandhi called Ramabai the embodiment of “all that a Hindu widow could be”.
Born on 25 January 1862 in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, Ramabai’s world was one in which the feminist movement still lacked spark. Under social, religious, and community constraints, very few women could stand up for chickenfeed privileges, let alone gain education or work. But Ramabai, with her steely strength, could expand her horizon beyond her small village of Devrashtre.
She joined the Indian female suffrage movement, chaired the first India Women Conference in 1904, and raised her voice for the rights of Indian labourers in Fiji and Kenya. She now rests in history books as the first woman to write an autobiography in the Marathi language titled Amchya Ayushyatil Kahi Athavani.
Where Raja Ram Mohan Roy was raising a cry against the practices of sati and child marriage in Bengal, Ramabai Ranade found sanctuary with Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, whom she was married to at the tender age of 11. The latter, called ‘The Prince of Graduates’, was known for leading the social reform movement in Maharashtra.
Their early marriage laid the foundation for their idealist philosophy — Ramabai, an illiterate wife, was set on the path to a robust education and training, despite the opposition from their family. A true feminist ally, Govind Ranade sent a young Ramabai to school, where she learnt to be fluent in Marathi, English, and Bengali.
The new ‘Indian Woman’
At the age of 18, Ramabai joined the Prarthana Samaj — founded by her husband — a liberal hub for 19th-century Maharashtra. Acknowledging how important rituals and religion were for the women around her, Ramabai’s gatherings were far from didactic, straight-jacketing lectures that lacked spirit.
What she added to the Prarthana Samaj was an element of community harmony, celebration, and inter-cultural unison. Her gatherings involved the Marathi tradition of halad kunku, a festival where women apply turmeric and vermillion to each other and sing kirtans, popularised in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani (2015). Through these rituals, Ramabai was able to teach them about the importance of education and also train them in skills like public speaking.
At the turn of the century, between 1893 and 1901, Ramabai’s Hindu Ladies Social Club and Literary Club in Bombay became famous for teaching the art of public speaking, sewing and weaving to women. In essence, she became India’s ‘new woman’ — an eclectic mix of sophisticated modernity and traditional belonging.
Seva Sadan, a legacy
By the time Florence Nightingale passed away in 1910, Ramabai was taking shape as India’s own pioneer nurse.
Her legacy is perhaps best represented by the Seva Sadan Society, which she founded in 1909 in Poona. The organisation stands strong more than a century later, with a message inscribed on its website that says, “The girl child is often neglected and deprived of a normal childhood, including her right to education and a life of equal opportunity.”
Ramabai’s Seva Sadan Nursing and Medical Association started with a simple question put to other women, “Don’t you have a father or brother in your house? When you are sick, don’t you take care of them? Then why don’t you see father or brother among male patients?”
From that point onwards, Ramabai was successful in training women as nurses and serving patients with utmost dedication.
Ramabai Ranade’s relevance has seeped into popular culture in multiple ways. On 15 August 1962, the Indo-Australian Post issued a stamp picturing Ramabai on her birth centenary for her contribution to women’s rights and social activities. In 2012, Zee Marathi aired a TV series named Unch Maaza Zoka based on her life.
Ramabai’s contributions to the women’s movement in India can hardly be relegated as fringe elements of history. With other feminist stalwarts like Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde, she stands tall.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)