Today is March 8, celebrated as International Women’s Day (IWD in short) all over the world. It is a day for celebrating and respecting the important roles women play in society, and remembering the countless struggles and achievements, often hard-won, of women across the world.
International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe. Since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women’s movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women’s conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas.
Every year since 1996, the United Nations has set a theme for each International Women’s Day, related to women and their development and contributions. The theme for 2014 is ‘Equality for Women is Progress for All’.
A short history
- On March 8, 1857, women working in clothing and textile factories in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police attacked the protestors and dispersed them.
- Two years later, again in March, these women formed their first labour union to try and protect themselves and gain some basic rights in the workplace.
- On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour.
- In May of that year, the Socialist Party of America designated the last Sunday in February for the observance of National Women's Day.
The textile workers' march through New York City on March 8, 1857
- In 1910, a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin, a leader of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, tabled the idea of an International Women's Day to press for the demands of women.
- The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women's clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin's suggestion with unanimous approval, and thus the concept of International Women's Day was born.
- In December 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace.
- Four global United Nations women's conferences have helped make the demand for women's rights and participation in the political and economic process a growing reality.
- These took place in 1975 in Mexico City, in 1980 in Copenhagen, in 1985 in Nairobi and in 1995 in Beijing.
- The Beijing conference declared a set of goals for progress of women in various areas including politics, health and education.
German poster for IWD, March 8, 1914
Delegates at the first World Conference on Women in 1975 in Mexico City
Today we celebrate IWD by chronicling the achievements of some of the better-known Bengali women who have had significant achievements, be it in any field, often overcoming stiff opposition from society.
(They have been arranged by chronological order of birth.)
SARADA DEVI (1853-1920)
Endearingly known as ‘Holy Mother’, Sarada Devi was the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna. She was married at a very young age, and at the age of 18, went to live with her husband, Sri Ramakrishna. She led the life of a nun all through her life, following the spiritual path of her husband. Sri Ramakrishna looked upon Sarada Devi as a special manifestation of Divine Mother of the universe. After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away in 1886, his disciples brought her to Kolkata. This marked a turning point in her life; she now began to accept spiritual seekers as her disciples.
When the Western women disciples of Swami Vivekananda came to Kolkata, the Holy Mother accepted them with open arms as her daughters, ignoring the restrictions of the orthodox society of those days. Although she had grown up in a conservative rural society without any access to modern education, she held progressive views, and whole-heartedly supported Swami Vivekananda’s and Sister Nivedita’s plans for the uplift of the masses and women. Sarada Devi played a very important role as the advisory head of a nascent organisation that has gone on to become one of the biggest organisations in India devoted to social work and education – the Ramakrishna Mission.
KADAMBINI GANGULY (1861-1923)
Kadambini Ganguly was one of the first female graduates of the British Empire (along with Chandramukhi Basu, who went on to become the first female head of an undergraduate academic establishment in South Asia – Bethune College). Kadambini studied medicine at Calcutta Medical College. In 1886, she and Anandi Gopal Joshi became the first Indian, as well as South Asian, women doctors qualified to practice western medicine. She was thus the first Bengali woman doctor of western medicine. She overcame opposition from the teaching staff and orthodox sections of society. She went to the United Kingdom in 1892 and qualified from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. After working for a short period in Lady Dufferin Hospital, she started her own private practice. She and her husband, the Brahmo reformer and leader of women's emancipation, Dwarkanath Ganguly, were actively involved in female emancipation and social movements to improve work conditions of female coal miners in eastern India. She was one of the six female delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress in 1889.
KAMINI ROY (1864-1933)
Kamini Roy was the first woman honours graduate in British India. She was a leading Bengali poet, social worker and feminist in British India. She was among the earliest women to attend college in India, having passed her BA exam with Sanskrit honours from Bethune College (University of Calcutta) in 1886. She published a book of poems, Alo Chhaya in 1889, which created a stir in the literary world as much for its rare sensibilities as for the profundity of a woman’s self-realisation. This was the first of many notable literary contributions over the course of almost 50 years. She went out of her way to encourage other writers and poets.
She was the president of the Bengali Literary Conference in 1930 and vice-president of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad in 1932-33. Calcutta University honoured her with the Jagattarini Gold Medal. Kamini Roy was a feminist in an age when even women's education was a taboo. She picked up the cue for feminism from a fellow student of Bethune School, Abala Bose. In 1921, she was one of the leaders, along with Kumudini Mitra (Basu) and Mrinalini Sen, of the Bangiya Nari Samaj to fight for woman’s suffrage. Ultimately, in 1926, women in Bengal exercised their right to vote for the first time.
MATANGINI HAZRA (1870-1942)
Matangini Hazra was a revolutionary who participated in the Indian independence movement until she was shot dead by the British Indian police in front of the Tamluk police station in the erstwhile Midnapore district on September 29, 1942. She was affectionately known as ‘Gandhi buri’ (Bengali for ‘old lady Gandhi’). In 1905, she became actively interested in the Indian independence movement as a Gandhian. A notable feature of the freedom struggle in Midnapore was the participation of women, and she was the most prominent among them. In 1932, she took part in the Non-Cooperation Movement and was arrested, but later released.
After being released, she became an active member of the Indian National Congress and took to spinning her own khadi. As part of the Quit India Movement, members of the Congress planned to take over the various police stations of Midnapore district. Matangini Hazra, then 73, led a procession of six thousand supporters, mostly women volunteers, with the purpose of taking over the Tamluk police station. They were ordered to disband by the police. She had stepped forward and appealed to the police not to open fire at the crowd; but instead, the police repeatedly shot her to her death. She died with the flag of the Indian National Congress held high and still flying.
Statue of Matangini Hazra
SAROJINI NAIDU (1879-1949)
Sarojini Naidu was actually a Bengali, born Sarojini Chattopadhyay. She was a child prodigy, and a very well-known independence activist as well as a famous poet. Her poetic prowess earned her the sobriquet ‘Nightingale of India’. Naidu served as the first governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh from 1947 to 1949; this made her the first woman governor of an Indian state. She was the second woman to become the president of the Indian National Congress in 1925 (in Kanpur) and the first Indian woman to become so. Naidu joined the Indian national movement in the wake of the partition of Bengal in 1905. She gradually went on to play a major role in many of the movements in the struggle for independence. She was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal by the British government for her work during the plague epidemic in India. In 1931, she participated in the Round Table Conference with Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malaviya. In 1905, her first collection of poems, named The Golden Threshold was published. Her poems were admired by many prominent Indian politicians like Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
ASIMA CHATTERJEE (1917-2006)
Asima Chatterjee was an Indian chemist noted for her work in the fields of organic chemistry and phytomedicine. Her most notable work includes those on vinca alkaloids, and the development of anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She also authored a considerable volume of work on medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent. She was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate of science of any Indian university, being given the degree by Calcutta University. She joined Lady Brabourne College in 1940 as the founding head of the department of chemistry. In 1962, she became the Khaira Professor of Chemistry, one of the most prestigious and coveted Chairs of the Calcutta University, and thus became the first woman scientist to adorn a chair of any university in India. In 1961, she received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science, in the process becoming the first female recipient. In 1975, she was conferred the prestigious Padma Bhushan and became the first lady scientist to be elected as the president of the Indian Science Congress Association. Chatterjee successfully developed the anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56 from Marsilia minuta and an anti-malarial drug from Alstonia scholaris, Swertia chirata, Picrorhiza kurroa and Caesalpinia crista. These patented drugs have been very successfully commercialised, having been marketed by several companies.
MAMATA BANERJEE (b. 1955)
Mamata Banerjee is the chief minister of West Bengal since 2011. She is the first woman to hold the office. Banerjee founded All India Trinamool Congress in 1997 and became its chairperson, after separating from the Indian National Congress. She is often referred to as Didi (meaning ‘elder sister’). In 2011, Banerjee pulled off a landslide victory in West Bengal by defeating the 34-year old Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, until then the world's longest-serving democratically-elected communist government. Banerjee previously served as Minister of Railways twice (and is also the first woman railway minister of India), Minister of Coal, and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Department of Youth Affairs and Sports and Women and Child Development, in the Central cabinet. She opposed forceful land acquisition for industrialisation by the then communist government in West Bengal for special economic zones (SEZs) at the cost of farmers’ livelihoods. In 2012, Time magazine named her one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’. Also in 2012, Bloomberg Markets magazine listed her among the 50 most influential people in the world of finance. She is seen by many as India’s most honest politician.
BULA CHOWDHURY (b. 1970)
Bula Chowdhury is India’s best known female long-distance swimmer, and an internationally famous one. Chowdhury’s parents recognised their daughter’s talent at an early age and nurtured it carefully. When she was two years old, her father took her to the Hugli River for her first swimming lesson. At age five she was admitted to a swimming-training school. After winning numerous medals in various age-group and national competitions, she decided to plunge into the tough world of long-distance swimming. Chowdhury started long-distance swimming in 1989 and crossed the English Channel that year. She won the 81-km Murshidabad Long Distance Swim in 1996, and in 1999 she crossed the English Channel again, becoming the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel twice. In 2005 she became the first woman in the world to have swum across sea channels off five continents – including the Strait of Gibraltar, Tyrrhenian Sea, Cook Strait, Toroneos Gulf (Gulf of Kassandra) in Greece, the Catalina Channel off the California coast, and from Three Anchor Bay to Robben Island near Cape Town, South Africa).
Too many to name
These above are just some of the numerous women who have contributed to India and Bengal. In reality, there are too many to list here. Besides those born in India, there are some who came from outside and made Bengal their homes, and made commendable work for society. Among the more famous are people like Sister Nivedita and Mother Teresa.
Sister Nivedita (left), Mother Teresa
Increasingly, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for M3.tv