Savitribai Phule is a very famous name in India because of her contribution to the field of education. She is the first woman teacher in India and is an icon for teachers across the world. She is not only known for her contributions to the education sector but is also seen as an eminent personality in the field of women’s rights and activism. In addition, she was an educationalist, social reformer, and poet, often writing in her native language, Marathi.
Her Venture Into Education
Savitribhai Phule was born in the village of Naigaon in the Satara District of Maharashtra. She was the eldest daughter of Khandoji and Lakshmi Nevase Patil. For such a famous educationalist who was the first woman teacher in India, Savitribai Phule was illiterate till she was married. Her husband, Jyotirao Phule, was the person who taught her and her cousin Sagunabai Shirsagar to read and write in their home. Jyotirao entrusted Savitribai’s further education to two of his close friends, Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar and Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe. Jyotirao was particularly interested in the upliftment of women, especially among the lower caste community in India. He advised her to help him in his effort and so she enrolled herself into two famous teacher training institutions at the time - an American missionary led by Cynthia Farrar, and in the Normal School in Pune.
Social Reform as a Teacher
After completing her teacher training, Savitribai Phule began her career as a teacher by teaching girl students in Maharwada in Pune alongside her husband, hence becoming the first woman teacher in India. They opened the first all-girls school in India at Bhide Wada, Pune in 1848. This was especially significant because, on the first day of opening the school, nine girls from different social backgrounds came to study, including both upper and lower castes.
To understand the gravity of the significance of this event, we need to understand the social status of women and lower caste people back then. The Brahmins controlled education at the time and so lower caste people and women did not get the education they deserved. It was in such a conservative society that Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule opened their school.
Problems She Faced
Being the first woman teacher in India was not easy for Savitribai Phule so to speak. She was met with severe backlash from the upper caste and Brahmin community as they felt that they were tainting their religion, but they were mostly hurt by the fact that their monoply on education was being challenged. This resulted in regular assaults on her and her husband at the school. It is said that Savitribai used to carry an extra sari with her while coming to school because people used to throw stones and cow dung at her.
They had to eventually leave because Jyotirao’s father was also a conservative man and considered what his son was doing a sin according to the way he practiced his religion. Hence, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule had to leave their home and move in with a friend, Usman Sheikh which is where they met Fatima Sheikh. She studied and taught alongside Savitribai and assisted the Phule's in their venture.
Jyotirao and Savitribai started two educational trusts chiefly for the upliftment and education of women and the lower caste community. These were the Native Female School, Pune for women, and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs, and Etceteras for the lower caste community.
In addition to her work as a teacher and social reformer, Savitribai Phule was a prolific writer and poet and did a lot of things for the upliftment of women.
- She authored Kavya Phule (1854), Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1892), and a poem named ‘Go, Get Education’ that was written to encourage oppressed people in freeing themselves from their oppressors by means of education.
- She founded the Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness about women’s rights.
- She created a gathering place for women where they could gather for free irrespective of their caste, religion, etc.
- She opened a women’s shelter named the Home for the Prevention of Infanticide where women could deliver their children and leave them for adoption if they wanted to.
- She was very vocal against child marriage and Sati and supportive of widow remarriage.
- Along with her adopted son Yeswant, Savitribai opened a clinic for helping people who contracted the deadly bubonic plague.
As mentioned earlier, Savitribai opened a clinic with her son Yeswant for treating people with bubonic plague. It was established in the extreme outskirts of the city of Pune near the inception of the outbreak, which was around Nalasopara. When she came to know that Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad’s son, who was staying at the Mahar settlement outside Mundhwa, had contracted the disease, she risked her life and carried him on her back to the hospital. As a result of this feat, she was also infected and succumbed to the illness on the 10th of March, 1897.
Savitribai Phule’s contribution towards women empowerment, education, and social reform are widely recognized. Whenever women in education is a topic that is being discussed, it is incomplete without mentioning her contributions. Her work has inspired a large number of women to take up teaching in India and has since revolutionized the education system as a whole. Several movies, documentaries, and television dramas have been created depicting her struggles in Marathi and Kannada media. She remains one the most influential women India as a country has ever produced and can be eternally proud of.