The untold story of men who stood by trailblazing women as they stormed the male-dominated fields of medicine, engineering and architecture in the 19th and 20th century

The Hindi feature film Dangal (2016) remains etched in the filmgoers’ memory for the brilliant sketch of champion women wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat that it has created for posterity. However, the central narrative revolves around their father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler and Dronacharya award-winning wrestling coach, who single-handedly — despite stiff opposition in his native Haryana — forged a path for his daughters in the severely male-dominated world of wrestling (or the severely male-dominated world, period).

It is a well-worn cliché to say that every time a girl/woman breaks a glass ceiling, there is invariably a man behind her, who has helped her walk that thorny path of creating a new road altogether. It is as true today as it was more than a century ago. The International Women’s Day (March 8) made me think of the earliest women achievers of the country in areas like medicine, engineering and architecture — traditionally dominated by men — and the people behind them who made it all possible. After all, a lone pathfinder often ends up fighting prejudices and is unable to do anything substantial in her chosen field of endeavour if she doesn’t have the unflinching support of key characters in her life.

The first Indian woman to study medicine

The foremost story in this context is that of Dr Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (1865-1887; first from the left in the top picture). In the late 19th century, the term ‘crowd funding’ had not been coined and its application was rare; rarer still, however, was an Indian woman studying modern, western medicine abroad. But Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, a mere teenager, created history on both the fronts around that time. She would go on to raise funds from the public for her education in the US and thus stamp her name as the first Indian woman to get a degree in western medicine, and become a doctor.

Dr Joshi owes her place in history to a mix of personal misfortune and her husband’s unstinted, unprecedented and prescient support through that crisis. Born on March 31, 1865, Anandi was married at the age of nine to Gopalrao Joshi, who proved to be an unusual husband. He was very much interested in his wife’s education and taught her various subjects such as Mathematics, History and Geography, as well as languages such as Marathi, Sanskrit and English. A few years later, the couple had their first child, who unfortunately, died soon after birth due to lack of medical help. This spurred Anandibai to study medicine, to be able to help Indian women during childbirth.

Dr Kamlakar Kshirsagar, who has done extensive research on the life of Dr Anandibai Joshi, wrote in detail in Science India about her journey to become the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree. “In 1880, her husband sent a letter to an American missionary, Royal Wilder, stating his wife’s interest in studying medicine in the US and inquiring about a suitable post in the US for himself.

Wilder published the correspondence in Princeton’s Missionary Review, which caught the attention of Theodicia Carpenter, a resident of Rochelle, New Jersey. Carpenter reached out to Joshis, helped her find the right college to apply — the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania — and would later even host Anandibai during her stay in the US,” he wrote.

Not surprisingly, the couple faced censure over its decision. However, the two embarked on a tour to address people on Anandi’s need for funds to study western medicine, on the need for female doctors in India, even stressing on “how Hindu women could better serve as physicians to Hindu women in given circumstances to avoid maternal and neonatal mortality,” writes Dr Kshirsagar.

Anandibai succeeded in generating funds and travelled to the US to study; she graduated in 1886 as an MD and the topic of her thesis was, ‘Obstetrics Among the Aryan Hindoos’. Upon her return to India to a grand welcome, the princely state of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital. Unfortunately, Anandibai had contracted tuberculosis in the US and passed away at the very young age of 22 on February 26, 1887, in Pune.

Other women storming into male bastions

While Dr Anandibai Joshi was the first Indian woman to study medicine, the first India-educated woman doctor, Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923; third from the left), who also became the first practising woman doctor of the country, was chastised in a much worse manner. Yet, she survived and succeeded because of the strong support of her husband, Dwarkanath Ganguly. After becoming the first Indian woman to gain admission to an Indian medical college — she joined Calcutta Medical College in 1884 — Kadambini went to the UK to obtain a diploma.

She was heavily criticised by the conservative society for showing the courage to break tradition. Bengali magazine Bangabashi crossed a very sensitive line by publishing articles that labelled her a whore. It was her husband who took the magazine to court for defamation. He won the case, with the court awarding a jail term of six months to the magazine editor Mahesh Pal.

The story of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha (second from the left), the first woman engineer of India, is also the story of her father’s determination to not let his daughter’s life go waste after she was widowed with a child at the age of 18 years. A. Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in Madras, and her father Pappu Subba Rao was a professor at College of Engineering (CEG), Guindy, University of Madras. After his daughter became a widow, he urged the principal of CEG, KC Chacko to grant admission to Lalitha. He also encouraged other girls to pursue engineering, paving the way for PK Thressia and Leelamma George to join the college soon thereafter. While Lalitha graduated in electrical engineering in 1943, becoming the first Indian woman engineer, Thressia and George graduated in 1944 in civil engineering.

Indian society in the late 19th century and even in the early 20th century was far more hostile to women stepping out of traditional confines to push the envelope than what is imaginable today. The personal agency of the female students had to be resolutely supported by their families — specifically male members such as fathers, husbands and brothers — for them to be able to succeed not just in studying but also in practicing professionally what they had trained for. As Kadambini Ganguly’s case shows, the society was despicable enough to label her a whore as she had dared to step out of the house to study and practice medicine.

Perin Jamshedji Mistri (extreme right), the first professionally qualified woman architect of India, hailed from the illustrious Mistri family of engineers and builders, and was ably supported by her family, not only to study architecture but even join the family firm as a professional. Her father was eminent engineer and architect Jamshedji Pestonji Mistri, who founded the architectural firm, Mistri and Bhedwar (later Ditchburn, Mistri and Bhedwar), while her brother, Minocher ‘Minoo’ Mistri would go on to become a prominent architect himself, and one of the founders of respected Indian art publication, Marg.

Yet, while studying architecture at Sir J. J. School of Art and Architecture earlier, Perin had to lead the opposition in the debate of the college’s debating society, which was ironically titled ‘Women should not become architects’!

Even as we celebrate the enlightened men behind the success stories of Indian women in an age and time when society was far more hostile towards women who stormed into male bastions, stories abound of how many of those women pioneers were denied by their professional peers their rightful place, and even due credit for work done by them. But that’s another story.

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