Savitribai Phule was the wife of the social reformer Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, and an activist in her own right. She was married to Jyotirao in 1840 at the age of nine. Her husband wished to educate her, a project which met with fierce resistance from his own family. Nothing daunted, they moved out of the ancestral home so that she could go to school unhindered. She and a Muslim, Fatima Sheikh, finished school together in 1847. Savitribai having completed her studies, she and her husband started a school for girls in Pune in 1848, with nine girls from different castes as the first batch of students. Every day as Savitribai walked to the school to teach, groups of orthodox men would follow her, jeer at her and pelt her with garbage and stones. She was severely discouraged, but her husband urged her to go on. He gave her two saris, telling her to wear the cheap one for society to dump its garbage on her on the road, and to change into the better one in school. Finally one day Savitribai’s patience evaporated and she slapped one of her tormentors. From the following day, she was left unmolested.
She and her husband continued to open schools. She also campaigned against the ill-treatment of widows and urged the barbers who shaved widows’ heads to go on ‘strike’. Wells were segregated by caste, so they threw open their water reservoir to the untouchables in the neighbourhood. Once Jyotirao stopped a pregnant woman from committing suicide, promising her to give her child his name after it was born. Savitribai and Jyotirao later on adopted this child who grew up to become a doctor. They also set up a shelter for pregnant women to be delivered where no questions would be asked about the antecedents of the child. This was called the ‘Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha’ or ‘place of prevention of child murder’. The couple continued to face intense prejudice and hostility from society for their reforms. Savitribai carried on her husband’s work after his death. In 1897 she threw herself into relief work during the Bombay plague, but caught the disease and died.
Savitribai was also a Marathi poet. She published two collections, Kavya Phule in 1934 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1982. In 1996 the Maharashtra government started an award in her name for women who work for social causes. On her death anniversary, a postage stamp was released by the Department of Post and Telegraph to commemorate her.