Childhood & Early Life
Savitribai Phule was born on January 3, 1831, in Naigaon in British India. The place is now part of the Satara district of Maharashtra, India. Savitribai was the eldest daughter of the farming family of Khandoji Neveshe Patil and his wife, Lakshmi, who belonged to the Mali community.
As was the custom of those days, Savitribai was married off during her childhood. She was just 9 years old when she was married off to a boy of her own community, 13-year-old Jyotirao Govindrao Phule.
In those times, the Brahmins prohibited education of lower-caste people. Jyotirao, too, faced temporary hurdles in educating himself. However, he managed to attend a Scottish missionary school and studied till seventh grade. He grew up to become a prominent figure of the social reform movement in Maharashtra.
Government records suggest that Savitribai, who did not know how to read or write at the time of her marriage, was educated by Jyotirao at their home. He guided her till she completed her primary education, following which she came under the tutelage of Jyotirao’s friends, namely, Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar and Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe. She even joined two courses on teacher’s training, one at an institution in Ahmednagar run by American missionary Cynthia Farrar and the other at the ‘Normal School’ in Pune. Her educational and training background led many to consider her the first Indian woman teacher and headmistress.
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Savitribai began educating girls in Maharwada in Pune along with revolutionary feminist Sagunabai, a mentor of Jyotirao. The three eventually launched their own school for women in 1848 at Bhide Wada. The curriculum of the school included conventional western courses in science, math, and social studies.
The couple not only faced opposition from people of the upper castes but also from many belonging to the lower castes, for whose betterment they were working. For instance, the Sudra community was not allowed access to "literate education" for thousands of years. This is the reason many Sudras, often influenced by upper-caste people, opposed the couple’s efforts in educating their people and tagged such endeavour as “evil.”
The couple even had to leave the house of Jotirao’s father in 1849. The latter asked them to leave, as the couple’s pursuits were regarded a sin in the Brahmanical texts. After leaving his father’s house, Jotirao and Savitribai took shelter in Jotirao’s friend Usman Sheikh’s house, where Savitribai met Usman’s sister, Fatima Begum Sheikh. Fatima knew how to read and write. Encouraged by her brother, Fatima completed a teacher’s training program. She graduated from the ‘Normal School’ along with Savitribai. Following this, the two started a school for the Dalits and other backward castes, in Usman’s house in 1849. Many regard Fatima as the first Muslim woman teacher of India.
By late 1851, the Phule couple were operating three girls’ schools in Pune, teaching around 150 girls. Both the curriculum and the teaching procedure in the three schools were different from those in government schools, and many considered procedures applied in the former to be superior compared to the ones in the latter. Such repute resulted in the count of girls attending the Phule schools to be much higher than the boys studying in the government schools.
The conservative attitude of the local community created a lot of obstacles in the couple’s way of educating and empowering girls and the people of the lower castes. They were often harassed, humiliated, and threatened. While traveling to her school, Savitribai was attacked with stones, mud, and cow dung. She was also abused verbally. Such attacks, however, could not deter the efforts of Savitribai, who started carrying an extra “sari” to school.
The couple set up two educational trusts in the 1850s: the ‘Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs, and Etceteras’ and the ‘Native Female School.’ Many of the schools run by Savitribai and Fatima were associated with these trusts. Savitribai and Jotirao ended up opening 18 schools.
The couple established the 'Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha,’ a care center for pregnant rape victims. Apart from taking care of the safe delivery of these women, the center also worked toward saving their children. Savitribai protested against infanticide, and her ‘Home for the Prevention of Infanticide’ ensured safe delivery of the children of Brahmin widows. They also introduced provisions for the adoption of those children.
In her pursuit of raising awareness on issues on women’s rights, Savitribai, a pioneer of women’s education and empowerment, established the ‘Mahila Seva Mandal’ in 1852. She fought against child marriage, organized a strike against the practice of shaving the heads of widows, advocated for widow remarriage, and revolted against caste and gender bias.
After Jotirao founded the social reform society named the ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ in Pune on September 24, 1873, Savitribai became the head of the society’s women's section. The first ‘Satyashodhak’ marriage held that year was initiated by Savitribai. The no-dowry marriage was conducted without any Brahmin priest or Brahminical rituals. After Jotirao died on November 28, 1890, Savitribai became the chairperson of the ‘Samaj.’
Meanwhile, the Great Famine of 1875 saw the couple working tirelessly for the victims, distributing free food in various affected areas, and setting up 52 free food hostels in Maharashtra. Later, during the 1897 draught, Savitribai convinced the British government to take up relief work.
Savitribai was a prolific Marathi writer and poet. Her books include ‘Kavya Phule’ (1954) and ‘Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar’ (1982).
Family & Personal Life
Savitribai and Jyotirao had no child of their own and adopted the son of a Brahmin widow. The child was named Yashawantrao. Yashawantrao, who served his area as a doctor, had a ‘Satyashodhak’ inter-caste marriage.
After the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic plague started appearing in the vicinity of Nalasopara in 1897, Savitribai and Yashawantrao started a clinic in Hadapsar, in the outskirts of Pune, to treat those infected with the plague. Savitribai contracted the disease while trying to save the son of Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad. She carried the boy on her back to the hospital after he got infected with the plague in the Mahar settlement, outside Mundhwa. She succumbed to the plague on March 10, 1897.
A memorial was created for her in 1983 by the ‘Pune City Corporation.’ On March 10, 1998, ‘India Post’ released a stamp in her honor. The ‘University of Pune’ was renamed the ‘Savitribai Phule Pune University’ in 2015.
She is considered an icon, especially for the Dalit Mang caste, and her name belongs to the league of noted social reformers such as Babasaheb Ambedkar and Annabhau Sathe. In 2018, a Kannada biopic was made on her.