MUTHULAKSHMI S. REDDY (1886-1968)
Muthulakshmi S. Reddy was a doctor and social worker. She was the first woman to be admitted as a medical student at the Madras Medical College, the first woman to be nominated to the Madras Legislative Council, where she was elected Deputy Chairperson, the founder-president of the Indian Women’s Association and the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation.
Muthulakshmi was born in the Princely State of Pudukottah, the eldest daughter of S. Narayanaswami Iyer, an educationist and one-time principal of the Maharaja’s College in the State. Her mother Chandrammal, who came from a family whose women had traditionally danced in temples, insisted on sending her daughter to school. Muthulakshmi’s teachers found she could grasp subjects beyond the capacities of an ordinary child her age.
They taught her beyond the syllabus, but with puberty she had to leave school and be tutored at home. When she applied at the age of 18 to the Maharaja’s College, the administration was thrown into a quandary. No girl had ever been admitted, and the Principal alleged that her presence would ‘demoralise’ the boys. Finally the Raja himself had to intervene, and she was allowed to join.
In 1914 she married Dr T. Sundara Reddy, FRCS, a brilliant doctor who had to struggle hard to establish himself. In 1917 she was involved with the Women’s Indian Association of Madras, and campaigned for voting rights for women. She served women and children as a visiting doctor in the Widows’ Home and in the Social Service League. She was one of the founders of the Muslim Ladies’ Association and an associate of the Sharda Home, Madras Seva Sadan, and the Society of the Indian Ladies Samaj. In 1925 she went to England on a government scholarship to specialise in the diseases of women and children. In 1926 she became the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council and in 1928 she was unanimously elected deputy president of the Council. She resigned in May 1930 as a protest against the imprisonment of Gandhi.
During her tenure as legislator from 1927 to 1930, she piloted several reform acts, including the Sharda Act which increased the marriageable age for boys and girls, and she helped in abolishing the devdasi system. In 1930 in Madras she piloted and passed an Act for the Suppression of Brothels and Immoral Traffic. She established the first Rescue Home, and introduced a government scholarship for Harijan girls.
She addressed several meetings to plead for Independence and tried with Mrs Hamid Ali and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (q.v.) to secure political emancipation for Indian women. In 1931 she presided over the fifth meeting of the All India Women’s Conference at Lahore and continued to be its president and vice president until 1935. She became the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation in 1937 and took an interest in the problems of mendicancy, education and child welfare. She established a children’s hospital and made medical inspection compulsory in schools. In 1936 she turned her attention to cancer, launching the Anti Cancer Movement which eventually helped set up a cancer centre at Adyar.
After Independence she served again on the Legislative Council of Madras from 1952 to 1957. She was the first Chairman of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board from 1954 to 1957. In 1956 she received the Padma Bhushan. She wrote several books in English and Tamil, her Autobiography, Works of Mrs Margaret Cousins and My Experience as a Legislator to name a few.