In March 1886, 28-year-old Pandita Ramabai travelled from England to Philadelphia at the invitation of Rachel Bodley, the dean of the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. It was an exceptional occasion. A fresh class was graduating from the historic institution and in it was one of India’s first female medical students, Anandibai Joshi. Adding to the weight of the occasion was Ramabai’s own reputation – a scholar of Sanskrit texts, an educationist, and a champion of women’s rights in India.

Ramabai had formed the Arya Mahila Samaj in Poona (now Pune) in 1882 to promote women’s education and put an end to the practice of child marriage. So distinguished was her work in the field that she was invited in 1882 to testify before the Hunter Commission on “native education”. In her deposition, Ramabai spoke of the public hostility towards women’s education. She underlined the “need for women teachers and inspectors of schools,” writes sociologist Meera Kosambi, “and made an additional plea for women doctors because Indian women would not consult male doctors, especially for gynaecological complaints.”

These emphatic appeals left a vivid impression on many, not least of them William Wilson Hunter, the head of the British government’s commission. According to Kosambi, Hunter, a civil servant and historian, got her Marathi testimony translated into English and publicised her suggestions in England. A year later, her commitment to her cause took her to England, and three years later, she found herself sailing to the United States.

Early Life

Ramabai was born in 1858 in present-day Karnataka to Ananta Shastri and Laxmibai Dongre, two wandering Brahmin scholars. Learning and gruelling poverty were her constant companions in her childhood. The family lived a peripatetic life, reciting shlokas, narrating stories from ancient texts to the public, and surviving off charity. During these years, Ramabai acquired a knowledge of Sanskrit texts from her parents, who encouraged her to read the old texts herself.

Ramabai experienced tragedy early with the loss of her parents and younger siblings during the Deccan famine of 1876-1878. The death in 1880 of her brother Srinivas, who had been her devoted companion as the siblings travelled eastward to Calcutta, was especially hard. Later that year, in an alliance that broke caste barriers, she married Bengali lawyer Bipin Behari Medhavi. Medhavi, however, died two years later from an illness, and Ramabai, with her infant daughter, moved back to Poona to continue her work.

By this time, she had already drawn attention and admiration from reformers as well as missionaries. The money she earned from her first book, Stri Dharma Niti (1882), and the encouragement she received from the missionaries of the Community of St Mary at Vantage, motivated her to travel to England in 1883.

Credit: India Post, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons [Government Open Data License].

By most accounts, Ramabai first intended to study medicine, believing that it would help her serve women who found healthcare, even the traditional kind, hard to access. That she did not achieve her goal is ascribed to different intriguing reasons. Some believe her “deafness” became a handicap. Other claim that the “free-spirited” Ramabai refused, after her conversion, to adhere to the hierarchy and other doctrinal principles of the Church and the Community of St Mary at Vantage.

Whatever the cause, she left the career path of medicine to teach Sanskrit for two years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire, after encouragement from Professor Max Mueller and Dorothy Beale, the college principal. Even after this, though, the friction between her and her interlocutors at the Community of St Mary at Vantage continued, and the invite from Rachel Bodley in Philadelphia came as a timely reprieve.

America at the time was a place of budding progressive movements. Reading clubs and women’s associations – including the quaintly named “ignorance clubs” – had appeared across cities. Debates were raging on suffrage, women’s representation, temperance and prohibition. Overtures were being made to maintain peace among nations. And isolated movements were embarking on the formidable enterprise of protecting animals.

Most Americans in this era only had a vicarious knowledge of the “Orient”, derived from books published in England and works of missionaries such as William and Clementina Rowe Butler of the Methodist Episcopal Church who had worked in India.

Into this space arrived Ramabai. On March 7, 1886, barely a day after she reached the US, The New York Times, in an article on education in India, detailed her work, her scholarship and the impressive deposition before the Hunter Commission.

Almost from the beginning, Ramabai gave lectures on the “high caste Hindu woman” that reflected in part her own life. With the crowds in attendance, the lectures were a hit. But in sections of the media, the reactions would sometimes get off topic. For instance, on November 24, 1887, a report appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that was indicative of others:

“Short thick black hair that fell in heavy waves over a low wide intelligent forehead; neatly pencilled brows, arching large soulful, dark eyes; a large and expressive mouth, teeth of pearly whiteness; a little retiring chin; a complexion of the color of dark orange but smooth and faultless; high cheekbones of the Oriental style; withal a pleasant face.”  

She was often described patronisingly by the papers as “child-like”, a “little woman”, “no bigger than a half-grown child”, yet felicitous in her use of English. She was clear and soft-spoken when she spoke of the sad state of the young widow who was not permitted to remarry and languished in isolation.

Celebrity Reception

Early in her time in the US, Ramabai was drawn to German educator Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten philosophy. She believed it encouraged a variety of learning experiences, emphasised individual thinking, and drew on the learner’s immediate world. She wanted to use these methods in the school she intended to set up in India – one that would also shelter widowed women – and so she enrolled in a training course for kindergarten teachers in Philadelphia. Apart from this, she set about writing primers in Marathi, basing them on the impressive brightly-designed books produced in the US.

While she was giving lectures and participating in progressive causes, her book The High Caste Hindu Woman released in the US in 1887, cementing her popularity.

Beginning in December 1887, organisations sprouted across America to support, publicise and finance her work in India. Called Ramabai Association or Ramabai Circle, they were spread as wide as Boston in the east and San Francisco in the west to Omaha and Indianapolis in the mid-west. Before her departure for India in September 1888, there were 55 Ramabai Circle on the west coast alone. Some of these became meeting places for women. And one of them was so keen to add members that it invested in an “Egyptian mummy”, according to Indianapolis News.

The Inter Ocean newspaper in Chicago published a graphic article on India's child brides on May 23, 1897.

There were other mementos of Ramabai’s celebrity. The poet and activist Lucy Larcom composed a poem in her honour, which included the lines: “A wife, a mother – Ramabai at last the bitter draught / poured out for Hindu widowhood, with quivering lip has quaffed / She, mother of a woman-child, for Hindu’s sake, / their whole sad burden on her own frail shoulders longs to take.”

Meanwhile, the Phrenological Journal analysed her in its November 1887 issue in an article that managed to sound empathetic and preachy in equal measure:

“You are liable to work too hard, to burn yourself out too early, and your study should be how to nourish the system, not how to get fresh air; you are half crazy for that anyway but how to get something for that fresh air to burn as fuel, so as not to burn yourself out.”  

Long-Awaited Recognition

In her lifetime, Ramabai’s story was documented by missionaries associated with her work, such as Clementina Butler and Helen S Dyer. A deeper look into her life is offered by Meera Kosambi, a Ramabai scholar, who translated her accounts, including her travel diary to the US, which was originally published in Marathi as United Stateschi Lokasthiti ani Pravasav (1889).

These and other accounts speak of the long-standing associations Ramabai made with American progressives. Frances Willard of Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which vigorously crusaded for prohibition in the US, wrote admiringly about Ramabai after she addressed the union in Nashville in November 1887. Susan Anthony, a leading suffragette, invited Ramabai to the International Council of Women in Washington in March 1888 that had delegates from European countries as well.

The enthusiastic response Ramabai’s cause drew was, according to historians, the first time American philanthropy departed from its support for the British policies in India and turned its attention to the erupting movements in the country. On her return, Ramabai set up Sharada Sadan in Poona for child widows, and later Mukti Mission in Kedgaon, near Pune, to empower women and children. During the famine of 1897-’98, she rescued stricken children and women from affected regions and brought them to her mission in her bullock cart.

In 1898, she made a shorter trip to the US, during which she apprised Ramabai Associations of her work and secured continued support. In the last two decades of her life, as her work increased in scope and ambition, she encountered hostility from the Hindu orthodoxy, becoming, as historian Uma Chakravarti writes, “the most controversial Indian woman of her time”.

Three years ago, in November 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary of Ramabai, “scholar, feminist and educator” as part of a series remembering the unacknowledged. Ramabai, it said, broke nearly every rule and tradition that confined the life of an upper-caste Hindu woman in 19th-century India. She was “the rare woman who had learned Sanskrit; the rare Brahmin to marry out of caste; the rare woman who remained in public view”.

This is the fifteenth part in a series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.