REDDI, MUTHULAKSHMI (1886–1968), first female Hindu doctor in Madras; educator, legislator, and feminist. Muthulakshmi Reddi was a pioneering feminist, doctor, educator, and legislator in colonial Madras presidency. Born in 1886, she was raised in the princely state of Pudukōttai by her upper caste father, who was a college professor, and her mother, whose ancestors were dēvadāsi musician-dancers. Her upbringing led her to dislike caste and sectarian divisions, and as a rationalist, she fought against superstitions and misogynistic traditions that hindered modernization. She was sent to school to learn reading and arithmetic for household accounts. However, her father soon supported her entry into a local college. In 1912 Muthulakshmi graduated at the top of an all male class from Madras Medical College, the first Hindu woman doctor in this presidency.
She began working at a government hospital, treating women and children and the urban poor. In 1913 she became the resident doctor for R. S. Subbalakshmi Ammāl's Brahmin Hostel for Widows. In 1914 she married Dr. Sundara Reddi, who shared Muthulakshmi's interests in medicine and social welfare. The couple established girls' orphanages and rehabilitation centers for destitute women. When treating vagrant children at the Dr. Varadappa Naidu Home in 1919, Muthulakshmi perceived the connections between women's low status, neglect, illiteracy, early marriage, childbirth death, prostitution, and disease, and she became politically active in the struggle for women's rights.
In 1917 Muthulakshmi Reddi cofounded the Women's Indian Association (WIA), and in 1928 the Muslim Women's Association. As a member of nonsectarian organizations like the Madras Seva Sadan, Madras Vigilance Society, and Indian Ladies' Samaj, she worked with women of many communities, including Hindus (Pārvati Ammāl Chandrasēkharan and Mangalāmmal Sadāsivier), Muslims (Dr. Rahamatunīssa Bēgam and Shafia Mazeruddīn), Christians (Swarnam Appāsamy and Poonen Lukhose), Parsis (Hirābai Tātā), and Anglo-Irish women (Annie Besant and Margaret Cousins). She joined the 1917 All India Women's Delegation to Secretary of State Edwin Montagu, requesting provincial female suffrage under the Government of India Act of 1919. In 1926 she represented India at the International Suffrage Conference of Women in Paris, and in 1933 at the Congress of Women in Chicago.
In 1927 Reddi became the first woman legislator in colonial India, and she was chosen as the deputy president of the Madras Legislative Assembly. Reddi and her colleagues campaigned for the Sarda Act in 1930, which raised the age of marriage for girls to fourteen. She campaigned for increased state funding for girls' schools and occupational centers, low caste Ādi Dravida (aboriginal) girls' teacher training programs, and Muslim girls' education. She was a member of the Hartog Committee on education in 1928. Although she believed that the purdah, or veil, promoted female ill-health, as a pragmatist, she passed an Assembly resolution for separate wards and doctors for Muslim women in purdah. In 1929 she helped pass Act V of the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, which severed the cultural tradition of dēvadāsi (slaves of the god) dedication to temples from its economic link to shrine properties. She supported Mahatma Gandhi's ideals of moral purity and the emancipation of women. Muthulakshmi Reddi was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan award for her services to Indian women before her death in 1968.
Sita Anantha Raman
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