India's 'first ladies': Rousing stories of 20 women who were pioneers in their fields

These women were awarded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development for shattering stereotypes and coming into their own in their fields.
India's 'first ladies': Rousing stories of 20 women who were pioneers in their fields
India's 'first ladies': Rousing stories of 20 women who were pioneers in their fields
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Do you know the story of Selvi Gowda, once a child bride in Karnataka, who left her abusive past behind to become India’s first woman taxi driver? Or did you know that India’s first woman graffiti artist Kajal Singh wanted to invest her profits in education programmes for the poor?

The Ministry of Women and Child Development on Saturday felicitated 110 women, including Selvi and Kajal, for being the first women to break into their fields, paving the way for those to come.

TNM picked 20 out of the 112 women recognized and awarded by the government. You can read their inspiring stories here.

Kajal Singh

Coming from a family where her mother is a painter and brother a budding graffiti artist, art, some would argue, was in Kajal’s veins. Hailing from Delhi, Kajal’s graffiti has been interestingly influenced by hip-hop too – an art form she came to love when she was still a student. She made modest beginnings in 2011 when she joined a 2nd International Graffiti and Hip Hop Project team in 2014 – an event organised by the German Consulate and Hip-Hop Stützpunkt of Berlin on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kajal’s work was recognised there and soon, she was commissioned to present at the Germany’s National Day celebration in Mumbai and she also designed the German Consulate in Kolkata. She was also invited to the Trinity College (USA), to the Creative World Fair (Germany), to Street Art Festivals (Russia, China) and she received scholarship from the Army. She wants to invest her profits into creative-education programmes for the poor and youth in India.

Courtesy: Kajal Singh/Facebook

Priya Jhingan

Priya Jhingan was born to a police officer, and initially wanted to be just like him when she grew up. Later, she decided she wanted to join the Army, but there was one hurdle – women weren’t allowed to join the Indian Army. So in 1988, she wrote to the then Chief of Army Staff asking him to consider inducting women into the Army. Her request was finally accepted in 1992. After completing her training in Officers Training Academy, in Chennai, she became the first lady cadet to join Indian Army in 1993. She was given the enrolment number of 001 for being the first woman to enlist. Priya is an experienced trek leader and a qualified skier too.

Karnam Malleswari

Before PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal for India was Karnam Malleswari, now a retired weightlifter. Famously known as the ‘Iron Lady’ for her achievements back in the day, Karnam hails from Voosavanipeta, a small village in Andhra Pradesh. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she lifted 110 kg in the ‘snatch’ and 130 kg in the ‘clean and jerk’ for a total lift of 240 kg. She had previously won the world title in the 54 kg division in 1994 and 1995, and was placed third in 1993 and 1996. She was honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 1995 and received the Padma Shri Award in 1999. In her decade-and-a-half-long career, Karnam has bagged 41 gold medals, 15 silver medals, eight bronze medals, including 1 Olympic bronze medal, and holds six national records.

Chhavi Rajawat

There are many who hope to make a difference someday. But to make a real difference, one needs to go back to their roots, and that’s exactly what Chhavi Rajawat did. Now, Chhavi is the first woman Sarpanch of India, and holds the post in her village Soda, in Rajasthan. An alumnus of Lady Sri Ram College, she is the Sarpanch or the elected head of the Village Council of Soda. She has been working to equip her village with solar power, better roads, toilets and even a bank. She has an MBA degree from Pune and aims to make Soda a model village by pursuing an integrated, sustainable and gender-balanced model of development that can be replicated in other villages.

Arunima Sinha

The first differently abled woman to climb Mount Everest, Arunima Sinha was a flourishing national-level volleyball player when she lost her leg in 2011. She was pushed out of a moving train by some robbers, which led to one of her legs being amputated below the knee. But this tragedy did not quell her indomitable spirit, and she went on to become the first physically disabled woman to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, in May 2013. She has also unfurled the Indian national flag on five peaks: Everest in Asia, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Kosciuszko in Australia and Aconcagua in Argentina.

KS Chitra

This playback singer from Kerala has a number of devotional, Indian classical and popular songs to her name. She was also the first Indian woman to have been honoured at the House of Commons in the British Parliament in the UK. Chitra made her debut in 1984 as a playback singer. She has lent her voice to 18,000 film songs and has also won six National Film Awards – the highest ever in history. She has also been felicitated with at least 35 awards instituted by various state governments as well as the Padma Shri, in 2005, and 10 Filmfare awards over the years. She also promotes the Snehanandana Charitable Trust, which supports singers and musicians, and providing financial aid to those who cannot perform due to old age or illness.

Dr Indira Hinduja

Dr Indira Hinduja, a renowned consultant, gynaecologist and infertility specialist, is the first Indian gynaecologist to have delivered a test-tube baby on August 6, 1986. She founded IVF Centre in 1989 and is currently with the PD Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre. She was conferred with the prestigious Padma Shri in 2011 and the Dhanvantri Award (2000) by the Maharashtra government for her pioneering work in the field of infertility and assisted reproduction.

Selvi Gowda

Selvi’s journey from being a sexually abused child bride to becoming India’s first woman taxi driver is nothing short of inspiring. At 14, Selvi was contemplating suicide. But when a bus journey brought her to the steps of St Philomena's Church in Mysuru, her life changed. She was taken to a shelter for abused woman, where she was eventually introduced to driving. After she and two others mastered driving, they bought an Omni van. And while the other two women left, Selvi carried on and became a taxi driver in 2004 with the support of a Mysuru-based NGO. She later co-founded a women’s taxi service. An award-winning documentary on her, ‘Driving with Selvi’, sheds light on her decade-long healing journey.

Dhanya Menon

After studying cyber law in 2002, Dhanya was alarmed by the sudden spurt in cybercrime and the increasing misuse of technology. Three years later, she began conducting training workshops in cyber law for corporates, the police and several government departments. And when she started getting complaints and cases, and solving them, she became India’s first woman cybercrime investigator. Through her concerted efforts, she aims to make people, especially the youth and adolescents, aware of the vulnerabilities in their mobile phones, the internet and social networking sites. She is presently working with over 400 schools across the country to reduce cybercrime.

Praveena Solomon

Praveena Solomon is the first Indian woman to run a crematorium, the Velankadu crematorium – the busiest and oldest one in Chennai. But her journey has been fraught with challenges, including people dismissing her because she is a woman and being threatened with acid attacks. For the first six months, Praveena was tempted to give up and run back home. But with her persistence, the crematorium has now been transformed with new infrastructure and facilities, like an elevated furnace. The burials are also done without charging a fee – Praveena’s team receives Rs 750 from the corporation for each body and donations from locals keep it running.

Indian women’s ice hockey team

The team made history in March 2017 when they won their first-ever international match in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia. They were the first women’s Ice Hockey team to represent the country in 2016. The team comprises a total of 20 members, and several of them are from Ladakh. The team was struggling for funds and managed to make it to the tournament after donors contributed on a crowdfunding platform.

Chetna Sinha

Chetna founded the first rural bank for women in India. The founder of the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank and the Mann Deshi Foundation, it aims to provide rural women access to formal financial institutions. An experienced farmer, Chetna is credited for understanding the ground reality and tailoring her interventions accordingly. Chetna has won multiple awards, including the Godfrey Phillips Bravery Amodini Award and the Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar. She also won the Forbes India Leadership Award 2017 for being an entrepreneur with social impact.

Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman

An Anjuna awardee, Vijayalakshmi is the first woman in India to have won the World Chess Federation titles of Woman Grandmaster and International Master. Her many accomplishments include Woman International Master title at the FIDE Zonal tournament in Chennai in 1996, and the title of the title of International Master (IM) at the Chess Olympiad in 2000.

Ira Singhal

An IAS officer, Ira is the first woman with a disability to top the Civil Services Examination in 2014. She had cleared the exam in 2010, but was refused a posting due to her disability. However, she did not back down, and went to court. She filed a case with the Central Administrative Tribunal, which ruled in her favour. After this, she was posted as an Assistant Commissioner in the Customs and Excise Department of the Indian Revenue Services. She has a BE and an MBA, and has worked as a Strategy Manager for Cadbury India Limited.

Tessy Thomas

Known as the ‘Missile Woman of India', Tessy is the first woman to head an Indian missile project. She had key roles in many strategic projects in India, including the Long Range Ballistic Missile, the Agni IV and Agni V. She is the First Director of the Missile Laboratory, and possesses the unique identity of heading all three Missile Laboratories of the Missile Cluster (ASL, DRDL, RCI) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Hyderabad.

Beno Zephine

She is the first visually impaired woman to join the Indian Foreign Services. Having secured rank 343 in the Civil Service Examinations in 2014, she got her posting in 2015. She is currently deputed to the Indian Embassy in Paris as a Language Trainee. Her accolades include the Woman of the Year Award by Deccan Chronicle and Best Woman by Ritz Magazine.

Shoba K Mani

The first Indian woman to set up an airline, she is the founder and Managing Director of North East Shuttles. “When you walked into any government office at that time, there were never women there and it was a lot of hard work because I was never taken seriously enough. My job was to run the airline, but I had to put in a lot of effort to prove my mettle to the aviation ministry. That's the difficult part – to make them take you seriously. But when they saw that I knew the subject and did very well, the ministry and DGCA did appreciate it, especially because we were the only ones working in the North-East region, where the terrain and weather conditions are very difficult and challenging. The Ministry of Civil Aviation had been trying to set-up operations there, but was facing several challenges. Since my training and expertise was in a difficult terrain, I was not only able to set-up the airline there, but I operated it and made it profitable as well,” she told TNM.

Dr Bharati Lavekar

An MLA from the Mumbai’s Versova constituency, she introduced India’s first digital sanitary pad bank. Bharati established the TEE foundation, which focuses on tackling issues such as female foeticide, sanitation and hygiene, women’s education and gender inequality. The TEE Foundation has set up sanitary pad ATMs and disposal machines in schools and public places.


The first woman coolie in the Northwestern Railway region, she works at the Jaipur Railway Station. After the demise of her husband, Manju needed to support her three children. She took over her husband’s job as coolie to support her family. She even took his badge and is now the first woman coolie in India.

Chitra Ramakrishna

One of the few people who set up the National Stock Exchange (NSE), Chitra was the first woman Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the NSE, a position she held till November 2016. The institution is currently ranked the world’s second-largest exchange in cash market trades. She also won the Forbes ‘Women Leader of the Year’ award in 2013.

These women are just a few amongst the many pathbreakers the Minister of Women and Child Development honoured. The other women included Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Geeta Phogat, Bachendri Pal, PT Usha, Kalpana Chawla and India’s first female Merchant Navy Captain Radhika Menon, amongst others. You can view the complete list here.

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