The battle for women to make their presence felt in politics, which has long remained a “men's only club’, continues. The Women’s Reservation Bill seeking 33% reservation for women candidates in the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies is still pending. And ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, except for the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), the representation of women candidates remains at less than 15%.
So far, Tamil Nadu has had only two women Chief Ministers. In 1988, MGR’s wife VN Janaki Ramachandran held the post for 24 days after he passed away. And in 1991, when the 43-year-old J Jayalalithaa was made Chief Minister, she was the youngest the state had ever seen. Jayalalithaa went on to be elected to the post six times by the people of Tamil Nadu.
But long before them, Tamil Nadu has had women revolutionaries and political leaders from all walks of life. And in their honour, we’ve put together a list of 14 women who have left an indelible impression on the state’s political and social history. Women who must not be forgotten.
Moovalur was among the early women social reformers and an important political figure right until the time of her death in 1962. At first a supporter of the Indian National Congress, Moovalur then followed EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, to join the Dravidian movement. Moovalur Ramamirtham, who was born in Tiruvarur, felt strongly about the Self Respect movement and worked tirelessly for women’s causes. Hailing from the Isai Vellalar community herself, Moovalur pushed to bring an end to the Devadasi system. A strong voice against the imposition of Hindi, Moovalur Ramamirtham joined the DMK when Annadurai split from Periyar to form the political party. The Tamil Nadu government’s marriage assistance scheme was at one point named after her.
“It is therefore my fervent desire that those of my sisters who possess education, experience and knowledge should place these at the disposal of the state and find time to serve on all representative bodies, thus sharing with the men the duties and responsibilities of public life,” wrote Muthulakshmi Reddi in the introduction to her book, My Experience as a Legislator (1930). She said that this was one of her main objectives for writing the book. The book itself is a fascinating account of her time as the first woman legislator in the Madras Presidency and is available here to read. Nominated by the Women’s Indian Association, Muthulakshmi was part of the Madras Legislative Council from December 1926 to June 1930. At the time, she was the only woman in the body. That wasn’t all, Muthulakshmi was also a social reformer, a doctor, and an important women’s rights activist of her time. Muthulakshmi along with her band of revolutionary sisters including Moovalur Ramamirtham, Saminathan Dharmambal, and others fought against the Devadasi system.
Born into an orthodox Brahmin family, Subbalakshmi was an important voice against child marriage during the early years of the 20th century. She set up schools and centres like the Sarada Ladies Union, Srividya Kalanilayam, and Saradha Vidyalaya to support women and children. Subbalakshmi also inaugurated the Lady Willingdon Training College and Practice School in Chennai and was its first principal. She was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1952, where she served until 1956.
A Siddha practitioner who was committed to abolishing the Devadasi system, Dharmambal is better known as ‘Veera Tamizh Thaai’ (brave Tamil mother). She was among the organisers of the 1938 Progressive Women's Association conference but more importantly, her Manavar Mandram (students’ forum) through which she promoted Tamil education, was among her biggest achievements. Dharmambal was also a prominent voice during the anti-Hindi agitation and today, there’s a scheme for widow remarriage by the Tamil Nadu government in her name.
Born in Madras, Rukmini Lakshmipathi was one of the earliest graduates from the Women’s Christian College in then Madras. A member of the Indian National Congress, Rukmini was elected to the Madras Legislative Council in 1934 and to the Madras Presidency Legislative Council in 1937. She was also appointed as Deputy Speaker of the Assembly that year. Between May 1946 and March 1947, she was the Minister for Public Health for the Presidency in the T Prakasam cabinet, making her the first and only woman minister of the Presidency.
Nagammai was 13 when she married 19-year-old EV Ramasamy, later known as Periyar. She went on to lead a politically active life. She participated in the Self Respect movement, the Temperance movement aimed at curbing liquor shops, and the Vaikom Satyagraha that was against untouchability and caste discrimination in Kerala.
One of the very first Dalit women revolutionaries, Meenambal grew up in Rangoon in Myanmar. Her family had fled to the foreign country from Tamil Nadu due to caste oppression. Meenambal came from a family of Dalit revolutionaries, her father Vasudeva Pillai being an important Adi-Dravida Leader. Back in India, she became the first Scheduled Caste woman president of the South India Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF). Meenambal was also the one who bestowed Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy with the endearing name “Periyar” during a conference, a title he lovingly embraced.
Daughter of TV Sundaram Iyengar, the founder of TVS Motors, TS Soundaram took an active role in the freedom struggle. A doctor by profession, Soundaram was elected MLA twice, once during the 1952 elections and then during the 1957 elections. In 1962, she was elected as an MP from the Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency, under the Congress ticket and was appointed as the Union Deputy Minister for Education. While she later retired from politics, Soundaram continued to immerse herself in social work.
Kodumudi Balambal Sundarambal was one of the first actors in the country to show that one could move from the film industry to the political arena. She led the way for many others to follow. The actor who, with her astounding pitch, charmed her way into the hearts of Tamil audiences, was in fact the first from the profession to step into a state legislature in the country. During the 1937 elections, she actively campaigned for the Indian National Congress and was later nominated to the Legislature, becoming the first film personality to do so. It is also known that Sundarambal was one of the highest-paid actors of her time, billing Rs 1 lakh for her performance in Bhakta Nandanar way back in 1935. Legend also has it that Sundarambal’s charisma has intimidated a few male artists in her time.
A Parsi born in Ooty, Mary Clubwala Jadhav was a philanthropist who went on to establish several NGOs in Madras during her time. Mary was on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Madras bench during the 1952-1957 Madras Legislative Council when Dr P Cherian was the Chairman of the Council. In 1956, she was appointed the Sheriff of Madras, succeeding RE Castell. In 1952, she established the Madras School of Social Work that continues to be among the leading schools for social work in the country.
Having been a part of the Dravidar Kazhagam from the time it was founded, EVR Maniammai succeeded as the party’s President after the demise of its leader and her husband EV Ramasamy. Her marriage to the rationalist leader came as a shock to many [she was 31 when she married the widowed 72-year-old Periyar], and her appointment as his successor only raised more eyebrows. Nevertheless, Maniammai played a very important role in the Self Respect movement.
Born in Rangoon to Tamil parents, Jothi was an MLA, elected from the Egmore constituency as an Indian National Congress candidate in 1962. Between 1953 and 1954, she served as the Minister for Prohibition and Women's Welfare in C Rajagopalachari’s cabinet, and between 1962 and 1963, she served as the Minister for Public Health in K Kamaraj’s cabinet. Jothi also held the post of Governor of Kerala.
A women’s rights activist and politician, Pappa Umanath, was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Growing up, Dhanalakshmi (her given name) was always politically inclined and took part in various agitations. In 1989, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly from the Thiruverumbur constituency. She co-founded the All India Democratic Women's Association in 1973 and was its General Secretary as well. Carrying on the tradition, Umanath’s daughter U Vasuki is a Communist Party of India (Marxist) member.
Also a member of the CPI(M), Mythili co-founded the All India Democratic Women's Association along with Pappa Umanath and went on to be its Vice President. She was also a prominent trade union activist with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Mythili’s writings following the brutal Keezhvenmani massacre of 1968 when 44 women and children from Dalit families died in their homes due to arson committed by upper caste groups are part of a book titled Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation, compiled by writer V Geetha, and her daughter and professor, Kalpana Karunakaran. Mythili also played a significant role in bringing the Vachathi mass rapes of 1992, to justice.