Abused, questioned, beaten, but the first female doctors in India were determined: Kavitha Rao
Did you choose to title the book “Lady Doctors” in an ironic way? Where does the term come from?
It’s not ironic because that’s what these women were called back then, when female doctors were an anomaly. The first mention that I could find of this term was in the British Medical Journal in 1870, when female doctors were described as “traitorous to their sex.”
In colonial and cloistered India, what kind of labels did these women attract for their decision to pursue medicine?
Kadamabini Ganguly was called a whore, Rukhmabai Raut was called debauched and compared to an adulterous woman, a thief or a murderer. Haimabati Sen was threatened with death when she won a gold medal. Mary Poonen Lukose was criticized for her education abroad and said she had to cultivate “Indian ways”
Of the six 19th-century Indian “medical ladies” your book focuses on, which story left its mark on you the most?
Likely Rukhmabai Raut because she walked away from child marriage, spent years in court to divorce her husband, challenged powerful Tories, went to study in the UK, and ultimately led a long and fulfilling life as a doctor in Rajkot and Surat. Even one of them would be a huge achievement. Together they are almost unbelievable.
Were the men in their life supportive?
Almost all the women were supported by their fathers to study. Husbands were sometimes allies, sometimes fetters. Anandibai’s husband encouraged her to study, but was also physically abusive. Haimabati’s husband did not object to her being a doctor but took all of her income and sometimes beat her. On the other hand, the husbands of Kadambini and Mary Poonen Lukose were reportedly widely supported. In fact, most of the misogyny they faced came from their mothers and loved ones. Haimabati was discouraged from studying by her mother and aunts, as was Muthulakshmi.
Despite their education abroad, female doctors had to earn the trust of patients in India. How far did they have to go?
Kadambini had to go to UK to get a British education as people were reluctant to trust a doctor with an Indian education. Rukhmabai caught a pregnant sheep and delivered her lamb to her hospital to convince the women to come for their deliveries. Mary Poonen Lukose only gained the trust of the community after delivering Travancore Rani’s babies.
Many of these female doctors had to work in a context of famine and disease. What can they teach us about living with Covid-19?
I think Mary Poonen Lukose’s comments on the smallpox vaccination are very revealing of how Covid will ultimately have to be overcome, with immense sacrifice on the part of the public. In 1925, Mary opposed a resolution in the Travancore legislature that sought to make smallpox vaccinations optional. She said: “Small inconveniences and even risks must be encountered by individuals for the greater good of the community as a whole.”
As you read their journals and memoirs, what are the things that struck you?
What immediately struck me was how advanced their views were. Even Anandibai, who apparently played the role of the good Indian wife, had absolutely no fear of crossing the seas alone, at a time when women were totally dependent on their husbands. Indeed, she said, “If this life is so fleeting, why depend on another?
Did their sense of humor surprise you?
Haimabati’s sarcasm about her useless husband definitely surprised me. Particularly this line in his memoirs: “My husband came home and immediately began to ride his high horses. He said: “Women are only thorns on the path of life, obstacles to the spiritual quest”. An elderly lady said to her, “If you have decided to devote your life to spiritual activities, why did you get married?
Did the six female doctors laugh at the term “work-life balance”?
Probably yes! Most of them accepted that they would work and raise their families with very little help. But just because they didn’t know the term didn’t make it easy. Muthulakshmi, for example, wrote in a moment of frustration that female doctors had better stay single because of the difficult balancing act.
Would you call them feminists?
Of course, they were all feminists because they all believed that women were as capable as men of being doctors. Before the concept of equal pay for equal work was accepted in India, Haimabati Sen wrote angrily that she was paid less for her work than men. Rukhmabai has written at length about the fact that marriage is an institution that only benefits men, not women. I would describe their brand of feminism, on the whole, as radical for their time. Or even for our time!