Subbalakshmi Ammal, R. S.

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SUBBALAKSHMI AMMAL, R. S. (1886–1969), educator and activist for women's education R. S. Subbalakshmi Ammal, a pioneer in the education of upper-caste widows in colonial Madras presidency, was born in July 1886 into a Brahman family. Her students affectionately called her Sahōodarii, or Sister Subbalakshmi. In an era when upper caste girls' schooling was haphazard, her father, a college professor, supervised her education, supported by her mother and a widowed aunt. In accordance with upper caste custom in that era, Subbalakshmi was married before puberty, but the early death of her bridegroom left her a virgin widow at the age of eleven. Widows were often shunned as inauspicious blights, languishing in perpetual celibacy, clothed in drab mourning, their heads tonsured. In most cases, they remained illiterate and were dependent on family charity. However, Subbalakshmi's family defied tradition by educating her, moving to Madras (Chennai) to facilitate her attendance at the Presidency Convent Higher Secondary School. She won gold medals for academic achievement, then joined Madras Presidency College, where she majored in mathematics and botany. She graduated in 1912, the first Hindu widow in Madras to receive a bachelor's degree.

In 1910 Subbalakshmi had started an informal home to educate young widows whose grieving parents had approached her for this purpose. She also simultaneously taught at her former high school for a minimum wage, respecting the nuns who had been her own teachers, but disliking their attempts to convert her. She remained a devout Hindu, committed to the ideals of Upanishadic humanism. Though critical of misogynist traditions, she avoided alienating Hindu traditionalists whose widowed daughters she wished to educate. This pragmatism enabled her to succeed in promoting the education of widows. Her success attracted the attention of Christina Lynch, the progressive inspector of Government Girls' Schools. The two women soon planned to start a government teachers' training institute for widows. On 1 July 1912, their Sāradā Widows' Ashram opened, named for the Hindu goddess of learning.

In an age when prepuberty marriages were the norm, Subbalakshmi became a beacon for women whose education had been curtailed by early marriage. In January 1912 she started her Sāradā Ladies Union to promote intellectual inquiry among women. As a colonial government employee, Subbalakshmi could not openly join the nationalist Women's Indian Association (WIA), although she worked with feminist members like Muthulakshmi Reddi in an unofficial capacity.

In 1919 Subbalakshmi opened the Sāradā Vidyālaya Higher Secondary School for destitute unmarried girls. In 1921 she addressed the Indian Women's Conference delegates on the need for establishing more teachers' training institutes for women, and on the inclusion of occupational programs in the curriculum. She was respected by conservatives and reformers, colonials and nationalists, men and women. In 1947 Sāradā Ladies' Union was finally affiliated with the WIA. After independence, Subbalakshmi served as a member of the Madras Legislative Council. Denied children of her own, she lavished her maternal love and wisdom upon countless students, nieces, and nephews to whom she became an icon.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoWomen's Education ; Women's Indian Association


Primary sources include Government of Madras educational records; Subbalakshmi Ammal's private diary; and Sāradā Ladies' Union commemorative journals in her honor.

Chellammal, S. "Sister Subbalakshmi Ammal." In Sister Subbalakshmi Ammal: First Anniversary Commemoration Souvenir. Tamil: Sāradā Ladies' Union, 1970.

Felton, Monica. A Child Widow's Story. London: Gollancz, 1966.

Krishnaveni, K. Sahodari Subbalakshmi. Tamil: Sāradā Ladies' Union, 1962.

Raman, Sita Anantha. Getting Girls to School. Kolkata: Stree Press, 1996.

——. "Crossing Cultural Boundaries: Indian Matriarchs and Sisters in Service." Journal of Third World Studies 18, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 131–148.

Ramanathan, Malathi. Sister Subbalakshmi Ammal: Birth Centenary Souvenir. Tamil: Sāradā Ladies' Union, 1986.

Sastri, Kokila. "Sister R. S. Subbalakshmi." In Women Pioneers in Education (Tamil Nadu), edited by T. M. Narayanaswamy Pillai. Chennai: National Seminar on the Role of Women in Education in India, 1975.