Savitribai Phule: India’s first female teacher

Hindustan Times | By
Nov 08, 2019 04:57 PM IST

This social reformer was also a notable educationalist and a poet from Maharashtra. She dedicated her life to abolish Sati, child marriage and caste discriminations. She founded a school for girls at Bhide Wada, Pune, in 1848, and several others.

Born on January 3, 1831, in a family of farmers in Naigaon village in Satara district, Maharashtra, Savitribai Phule was the eldest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil. At the age of 9, she was married to 13-year-old Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was one of the greatest social reformers of Maharashtra. In fact, it was Jyotirao who taught Savitribai to read and write. She was passionate about teaching and soon enrolled herself in a teachers’ training institution in Ahmednagar. She also received another teacher’s training course in Pune.

Savitribai Phule who was a staunch feminist started Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852 to educate women about their rights, dignity and social issues.(ILLUSTRATION: Biswajit Debnath)
Savitribai Phule who was a staunch feminist started Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852 to educate women about their rights, dignity and social issues.(ILLUSTRATION: Biswajit Debnath)


She started teaching girls in Maharwada in Pune with Sagunabai, a revolutionary feminist and Jyotirao’s mentor. Soon, Savitribai, Jyotirao and Sagunabai started their school at Bhide Wada. The curriculum of the school was based on western education and included mathematics, science and social studies.

By the end of 1851, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were running three schools in Pune with a combined strength of approximately 150 girls. It was not an easy task for them. Conservatives from their own community and from the upper castes were against them. People often hurled cow dung, mud and stones at them. The indomitable Savitribai would often carry two saris with her while going to the schools.

With her close friend and colleague Fatima Begum Sheikh, Savitribai also started teaching women and children from downtrodden castes including Mang and Mahar who were considered untouchables. Savitribai and Jyotirao opened 18 schools for children of different castes. In 1852, the British government honoured the Phule family for their contribution towards education and named Savitribai as the best teacher. In 1855, the couple even started a night school for farmers and labourers.


A staunch feminist, Savitribai, in 1852, started Mahila Seva Mandal to educate women about their rights, dignity and social issues.

She had even organised a barbers’ strike in Mumbai and Pune to protest the custom of shaving heads of widows. In 1873, Jyotirao founded a social reform society called Satyashodhak Samaj and Savitribai was its active member. The community included Muslims, non-Brahmins, Brahmins and government officials. It aimed to free women and other less privileged people from caste and gender oppressions. Along with Jyotirao, she worked tirelessly during the 1876 famines and launched 52 free food hostels in Maharashtra.


The couple was childless. In 1874, they adopted a boy from a Brahmin widow, Kashibai. Through this the couple wanted to send a strong message to the regressive society. Their adopted son, Yashawantrao, grew up to become a doctor.


Savitribai died on March 10, 1897, battling bubonic plague. When the third pandemic of the bubonic plague broke out in 1897, Savitribai’s son, Yashawantrao, was serving as a doctor in Nala Sopara in Maharashtra. She helped him treat and take care of the patients at his clinic on the outskirts of Pune. She contracted the disease and succumbed to it.


1. In 1863, Jyotirao and Savitribai started the first-ever infanticide prohibition home in India called Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha. It helped pregnant Brahmin widows and rape victims deliver children.

2. Savitribai was very vocal against caste and gender discriminations. She wrote two books Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892 which are compilation of her poems.

3. Savitribai and her husband established two educational trusts — the Native Female School, Pune, and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs and others.

4. The educationist and social activist was an inspirational figure to young girls. She also encouraged them to write and paint. Her student Mukta Salve became an icon of Dalit feminism and literature.

5. To increase attendance in her schools, Savitribai would give stipend to children. She held parent-teacher meetings to create awareness among parents on the importance of education.

Sources: Wikipedia,

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