How The Women's Indian Association Paved The Way For Universal Suffrage In India

How The Women's Indian Association Paved The Way For Universal Suffrage In India
Adyar Library Research Centre, Chennai, India

The global worldview considers countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom as the bastions of progressive ideals. However, here’s a historical fact for you: In the USA the 19th Amendment, passed in 1919, technically granted women the right to vote even though it took several years, especially for women of color, to exercise their right to vote. In other words, women's suffrage rights were implemented on paper 130 years after the USA’s first President, George Washington took office. Even in the United Kingdom, women fought long and hard, even in the face of violent repression, to get their rightful power to vote hundreds of years after its first election. Universal suffrage was the fundamental demand during the first-wave feminism movement and is the reason why women have the cardinal right to vote.

With the election season in full swing currently in India, it brings to mind the first General Elections we had as a nascent democratic country in 1951, where every woman was allowed to vote. But did such a progressive stance come to India in a vacuum? Of course, not. Behind it lies years of fight by some inspirational women. At the center of the women’s suffrage movement and women’s rights movement in colonial India was the organization — the Women's Indian Association (WIA).

Founded in 1917 at Adayar, Madras (now Chennai), the Women's Indian Association (WIA) emerged as a powerful beacon of hope for women in a time of social and political upheaval in British India. Driven by a collective vision of empowerment, the WIA wasn't the singular effort of one leader, but a collaborative masterpiece woven by a diverse group of remarkable women. Annie Besant, a prominent Irish Theosophist, Margaret Cousins, an Irish suffragist and educator, Dorothy Jinarajadasa, an English feminist and suffragist along with a group of remarkable Indian women like Sarojini Naidu, Muthulakshmi Reddy, S. Ambujammal, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, joined hands to uplift the status of Indian women facing social injustices and limited opportunities.

How The Women's Indian Association Paved The Way For Universal Suffrage In India
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The WIA's strength lies in its inclusivity. The organization deliberately chose a name devoid of religious or regional affiliations, welcoming both Indian and European women. This unique approach fostered a space for cross-cultural exchange and a united front against the common enemy — oppressive social customs and limited political participation. Women like Sarojini Naidu, a renowned poet and orator, brought their voices and experiences to the table, forming a powerful bridge between the Indian and European perspectives within the WIA.

The initial focus of the WIA was to combat widespread issues like illiteracy, child marriage, and the exploitative Devadasi system. Beyond education, the organization championed women's participation in public life, actively advocating for political rights and suffrage. Margaret Cousins, with her experience in the Irish suffrage movement, brought valuable strategies and a burning passion for political equality to the WIA. Dorothy Jinarajadasa, a fierce advocate who had already been arrested for her participation in British suffrage protests, proved to be a formidable ally. Together, they, alongside other WIA members, tirelessly petitioned the British government and garnered significant media attention for their cause. Their unwavering efforts, including a delegation led by Annie Besant to the Secretary of State for India, Sir Edwin Montagu, laid the groundwork for the eventual extension of voting rights to women.

Up until 1921, women in India could not participate in electoral decision-making. The tireless efforts of the WIA towards promoting voting rights for women culminated in a landmark decision in that year when the Madras legislature became the first in British India to grant women's suffrage with a significant majority vote. This marked a turning point, as women were finally recognized as political equals and given the right to vote under the same conditions as men.

The WIA also established Stri Dharma, a women's magazine edited by Jinarajadasa and Cousins. This publication served as a platform to discuss women's welfare issues and achievements, not just in India, but across the globe. Furthermore, the WIA actively engaged in philanthropy, addressing social needs like healthcare and economic empowerment. Indian women like Muthulakshmi Reddy, a physician and social reformer, championed women's health issues within the WIA, while Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a socialist and women's rights activist, focused on economic opportunities for women.

The legacy of the WIA is simply remarkable. Through their tireless efforts, the WIA not only empowered women but also challenged social norms and paved the way for a more just and equitable society in India. The collaborative spirit of Indian and European women within the WIA created a force for change that transcended cultural and geographical boundaries. Its unwavering commitment to women's rights remains a vital part of India's history, serving as an inspiration for generations of women and social activists to come.