On July 10, 1889, an unlikely group of 47 women gathered at the Alexandra Girls’ School in Bombay’s Fort area. They were young, married, and invited by Emma Brainerd-Ryder, a practicing doctor who wanted them to exchange ideas, read and learn about exemplary women, past and present.

This was the first time the women were using the rent-free rooms at the Alexandra Girls’ School. Until then, the meetings were held in the doctor’s home – but not without difficulty. As the writer-journalist Mary Richards Gray wrote, Brainerd-Ryder had to explain her motives in detail to husbands and mothers-in-law, before they could be convinced to allow the young women to attend the gatherings.

A second formal meeting of the group followed in October, and this time it acquired a formal name: Bombay Sorosis. The word sorosis, meaning aggregation in Greek, is a fleshy fruit that is derived from the ovaries of several flowers. It was the name given to the first professional women’s club set up in New York in 1868, and the name taken by similar clubs or literary societies in other American cities.

The naming done, Bombay Sorosis adopted a motto: “The world was made for women also”.

The weight of this moment was not lost on anyone. Women’s Journal described the first meeting as the “first literary society for native women in India”. And contemporary writer Margaret Boehme Denning, wrote in her book Mosaics from India: “Family weddings, births and deaths – and for the rest the merest trifles – made up the sum total of their (India’s women) experience. History, deeds of heroism and the vivid life of to-day seemed scarcely to reach them at all. Mrs. Ryder felt it her plain duty to open the world in some way to these women.”

Itinerant Life

Emma Brainerd, or Emily Brainerd, was born in 1842 in St Albans, Vermont. She earned a teaching degree from the Oread Institute, a women’s college in Worcester, Massachusetts, and married George Wellington Ryder, a music professor, before moving to San Francisco.

Following her husband’s death in 1871, she moved to New York, where she enrolled at the New York Medical College for Women. The college had been set up just eight years before because women were not allowed to be physicians in New York’s hospitals till the early 1900s.

In 1875, Brainerd-Ryder was awarded a diploma in ophthalmology and oral surgery. After that, she moved to Europe, practicing for some time in Austria’s well-known general hospital. A short biographical note says she passed several exams with distinction and received certifications from 15 renowned doctors in specialised fields relating to anatomy and surgery. She was even recommended to the Russian tsar, Alexander III, to serve as a surgeon in the Russian Army. But her deputation to the Balkan Mountains as part of the Red Cross was stymied by the American minister at St Petersburg – he refused to grant her a passport because he felt the mission was too dangerous for a woman.

Back in the US, Dr Brainerd-Ryder began practicing in New York and speaking up for women’s rights. Among the subjects she advocated was dress reform, which sought less cumbersome and less awkward fashionwear for women.

There was a wind of change in the society, however faint. Since the 1870s, the women’s movement in the West had been raising awareness about women’s issues, such as education, temperance, dress reform, voting rights. The Sorosis clubs gave this activism a fillip by emerging as forums for women to exchange views, form alliances and seek professional opportunities.

The first of these clubs, the New York Sorosis, was set up by Jennie June Croly, or Jane Cunningham Croly. Croly realised there was a need for an exclusive meeting space for women after she and other female journalists were excluded from a formal dinner with the visiting British novelist Charles Dickens. Her writings propagated her “belief that equal rights and economic independence for women would allow them to become fully responsible, productive citizens”.

Jane Cunningham Croly founded the Sorosis club in New York that inspired women's clubs around the world. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Croly’s work, as well as the work of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, must have influenced Brainerd-Ryder. In 1888, she sailed with the feminist and scholar Pandita Ramabai to India, via Japan and China.

‘The Little Wives of India’

Brainerd-Ryder was receptive to, and empathised with, women’s issues – remarriage, education, child marriage – which were of increasing concern to reformers across India.

In the 1880s, two cases had highlighted the need for child marriage reform. The Age of Consent Bill, raising the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12, was passed in 1891 by the British Indian government following the death of 10-year-old Phulmani Dasi soon after her marriage. Earlier, in 1884, conservatives and reformers alike were divided over the case of Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai, who was married off at 11 to Dadaji Bhikaji, had refused to live with him on reaching puberty, as was the custom.

Brainerd-Ryder wrote about India’s child brides in her book, The Little Wives of India, which was published after she left India for Australia. She said that as a doctor, she could enter the homes of young brides to examine them when they needed medical care. The encounters affected her profoundly.

Credit: The History of the Woman's Club Movement in America.

A year after founding Bombay Sorosis, Brainerd-Ryder decided to set up a “technical school” for girls called Women’s Technical Education Association. Beyond just teaching young women professional skills, such as bookkeeping, sewing and tailoring, she wanted the school to instil a degree of self-reliance. Like with Bombay Sorosis, she again tried to convince older family members, but their consent was secured only after she agreed to pay the girls. As Mary Richards Gray writes in School Journal, husbands would turn up every Saturday morning to collect the money their wives had earned by attending classes the previous week. Nevertheless, the school was rewarding – some of the women found bookkeeping jobs.

Brainerd-Ryder left for Sri Lanka and then for Australia in 1892. By then, the Bombay Sorosis had 200 members, some of whom chose to attend the meetings via correspondence. In Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, Brainerd-Ryder established the Museum School for Buddhist Girls, an orphanage and technical school that also became part of the women’s club network. On her next stop, in Australia, she was instrumental in the founding of the Karrakatta Club in Perth in 1894.

While she was in Australia, Brainerd-Ryder’s The Little Wives of India was published. The book had limited sales, but she spoke on the subject at numerous events, leading to the formation of Little Wives of India Circles in Australia and New Zealand – similar to Ramabai Circles in the US – that raised money for Pandita Ramabai’s organisation in Pune.

Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati was a social reformer who campaigned for the education and emancipation of women in India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Brainerd-Ryder returned to the US around 1896. She died in 1913 at Roxbury, Massachusetts. In her 71 years, she had travelled widely, even descending deep into Australian gold mines on one occasion. No peril discouraged her. When the circumstances were treacherous, she just chose to travel with a bodyguard. This defiant unconventionality extended to the rest of her life, too: she continued to speak up about women’s rights and young child brides in India. She said their sufferance was similar to the experience of slaves on American plantations. As she elaborated in The Little Wives of India, in words that bear resonance with the Rukhmabai case of the late 1880s:

“A man may be a vile and loathsome creature; he may be blind, a lunatic, an idiot, a leper; he may be fifty, seventy or one hundred years old, and maybe married to a baby of five or ten who loathes his presence, but if he claims her, she must go, and the English law for the ‘Restitution of Conjugal Rights’ compels her to remain in his power, and imprisons her if she refuses.”