Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 26 January 2024

The women who fought for our rights

Relevance: GS I (Modern History and Social Issues)

  • Prelims: Government of India Act 1919; Government of India Act 1935;
  • Mains: Women Rights in Pre-Independence period;

Why in the News?

On the eve of 75th Republic Day of India, there was focus on Pre-independent feminist movements that played a crucial role in guaranteeing women’s rights in the Constitution. Sadly, their role in forging the republic remains underappreciated.


  • India’s journey towards becoming a Republic encompasses several movements and stakeholders who struggled for a progressive agenda. 
  • The references to justice, liberty, and equality in the Preamble of the Constitution were a nod of acknowledgement to the aspirations of freedom fighters and social reformers. 


Feminist movements in pre-independent India

The most glaring example is the case of the ‘Right to Vote’. It is often claimed that women were “granted” this right at the same time as men. This is misleading and ignores the concerted efforts of women activists. The following is the timeline for some of the feminist movements in pre-independent India that played a crucial role in ensuring women’s rights were guaranteed in the Constitution:

  • During 1917: One of the first official calls for enfranchising women was made when a delegation of women activists presented a memorandum of demands to Edwin Montagu and Lord Chelmsford, who had been tasked to formulate a scheme of self-governance for India. 
    • The Women’s Indian Association (WIA) was formed to address the socio-economic challenges faced by women. It was the first national body to advocate for female suffrage. 
  • During 1918: WIA and others intensified their advocacy, traveling to Britain to garner support for their causes. 
    • Sarojini Naidu took the women’s rights issue to the Congress party, moving resolutions for women’s enfranchisement at Congress sessions in Bijapur and Bombay. The first victory came with the enactment of the Government of India Act 1919 that allowed provincial legislatures to enfranchise women
  • During 1921: Madras became the first province to grant women the right to vote, followed by Bombay and the United Provinces. The enfranchisement Bill was defeated in the Bengal Legislative Council. 
    • Suffragists led by the Bangiya Nari Samaj organized massive awareness campaigns for four years, leading to the passage of the Bill in 1925. Women leaders did not let up after the initial success. 
    • The right to vote, while monumental, was conditional upon ownership of property, income, and other statuses which excluded a sizeable number of women. Further, women still did not have a right to sit in legislative bodies.
  • During 1927: In 1927, several women-led organizations joined hands to form the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC)
    • Initially, AIWC focused on women’s education. Later, it pushed for outlawing child marriage, raising the age of consent, and banning polygamy
    • AIWC believed that women’s emancipation was not possible without reforming the various religious laws (personal codes).
  • During 1928-29: The Nehru Report, a draft Constitution, prepared by an All Parties Conference in 1929 called for equal civic rights for all citizens. Britain was not keen on expanding this right. 
    • To galvanize international support, a delegation led by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Shareefa Hamid Ali traveled to London, and then Geneva to petition the League of Nations. 
  • During 1935: The Government of India Act 1935 expanded the right to vote and paved the way for women in public offices. Several women contested the 1936-37 elections and joined provincial governments. 
    • Women leaders created widespread acceptance for the idea of a universal adult franchise. Their activism extended to social and personal spheres.
  • During 1945-46: The AIWC adopted the Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties. The charter demanded equality in all spheres. 
    • It specifically made a case for women’s economic empowerment and highlighted the need to formally recognize the value of domestic work. 
    • The charter advocated wholesale reforms to the personal codes, demanding the freedom to divorce, and equal property and inheritance rights. Some of these demands found their way into the Hindu Code Bill and were enacted a decade later.

After Independence:

  • The reservations of seats on religious grounds
    • In the Constituent Assembly, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (a Christian) and Begum Qudsia Aizaz Rasul (a Muslim) made passionate appeals to do away with any special privileges. 
    • Eventually reservation was limited to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes
  • AIWC had been against separate electorates and believed that reservation deepened communal divisions, they even argued against women’s reservation. These issues caused a rift within the AIWC reflecting the diverse worldviews within the women’s movement.
  • The framers of our Constitution were no strangers to the diversity of thought. The Constitution was envisioned as a living document, allowing future governments to mould the republic as per the contingencies of the time. 


In the last 70 years, feminists have strived to advance the Rights of Women leading to the enactment of various laws, policies, and Constitutional amendments. The groundwork was laid by the women who came much before us. This 75th Republic Day is an opportune moment for us to honour and acknowledge their contributions. 


Mains PYQ

Q. Discuss the role of women in the freedom struggle especially during the Gandhian phase. (UPSC 2016)

Q. ‘Women’s movement in India has not addressed the issues of women of lower social strata.’ Substantiate your view. (UPSC 2018)

Prelims PYQ

Q. Consider the following statements: (UPSC 2021)

  1. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 recommended granting voting rights to all the women above the age of 21.
  2. The Government of India Act of 1935 gave women reserved seats in the legislature.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

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