Standing in the twenty-first century, at a time when women are still struggling to get equal rights, it would be terrifying to imagine the life of a girl born in the Brahmanical patriarchal system in the 1800s. But Anandibai Gopalrao Joshee’s incredible story of defiance in the face of patriarchy, and how she went on to become the first female Indian doctor, is one that is relevant even today.
Anandibai was born in Pune in 1865 as Yamuna, to an upper caste Hindu family based in Kalyan (now suburban Mumbai). She was married off to a man named Gopalrao, 17 years her senior when she was nine years of age. Gopalrao rechristened her as Anandibai and insisted on educating her, often resorting to beating her to make her study. But Anandibai was a reluctant child back then.
It was only after she became a mother at 12, and lost her 10 day old son, she voluntarily decided to study medicine. Rid of the ability to conceive, she realised that women’s access to healthcare was alarmingly limited and believed that the only means to counter that would be to have more women doctors. While his approach was questionable, Gopalrao’s constant rallying behind Anandibai’s education acted as a catalyst to her growth. At a time when it was unthinkable for upper-caste Hindu women to venture out of the domestic sphere into the public eye, Anandibai travelled from city to city with her husband and in a public address at Serampore talked about how more women doctors would mean better access to healthcare for women.
Determined to send his wife to medical school, Gopalrao wrote to a missionary in New Jersey, seeking their help in supporting Anandibai’s education in the United States. The missionary did not offer help, but published the correspondence in a magazine. Theodocia Carpenter, a housewife, chanced upon it and was immediately taken by Anandibai’s cause. She agreed to take her under her wing and support her education. Chaperoned by two missionaries Anandibai arrived in the United States in 1883 at the age of eighteen, and went on to get enrolled at the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania – an extraordinary feat for a Hindu woman of her time.