The stories of India’s earliest female doctors hold valuable lessons for working women, even a century later.
Do you know a ’lady doctor’? Of course, you do! What a strange question! Women in medicine are so normal today that we don’t give them a second thought. However, at the turn of the 19th century, a woman pursuing a career in medicine was unthinkable and unacceptable.
In her new book, ’Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine’, Kavitha Rao tells the story of six Indian pioneers who shattered stereotypes of what women could and could not do.
The stories of their lives are reminders of challenges that women who wish to break traditional molds continue to face. Today, when women are reclaiming their places in every field, and reaching for the stars, these lessons are insightful and inspiring.
Lesson 1: Defying customs takes courage but can reap rich rewards
Anandibai Joshi's decision to travel to America for her medical studies was opposed by many in their community, and her husband had planned to address these concerns at a meeting. At the last minute, she decided to make her statement personally and answered all the queries put forth to her directly. At that time, it was unthinkable for a woman to appear before a crowd of men, and it must have been daunting. Her powerful speech won her support and was even converted into a pamphlet. She became the first Indian woman to train as a doctor.
What we learn: Don’t let the voice inside you get stifled by the norm. Let it become the fierce war cry that it can.
Lesson 2: Women do not have to choose between family and work
Women are often made to believe that having a family will not allow them to pursue their ambitions. This is not true. Kadambini Ganguly was a mother of eight, with demanding personal responsibilities. She was also the first woman to practice medicine in India; and fought to get women admitted to Calcutta Medical College. One of the first working mothers in her milieu, she is an inspiration for both doctors and working mothers. Women can have fulfilling work, and a family, if organizations and families support them.
What we learn: The concept that family responsibilities will be an obstacle in our career is not correct. We must not allow ourselves to doubt this.
Lesson 3: Give your dreams wings. You never know how high you can soar
Muthulakshmi Reddy decided to build a cancer hospital at a time when the disease was believed to be incurable. The medical community and her family believed that it would be a waste of money and effort. But she persisted, and after much effort, was allotted an unsuitable piece of land. Today, the Adyar Cancer Institute in Tamil Nadu is one of the most reputed cancer institutes in India and the world.
If there is an idea that you are passionate about, don’t give up, even if those around you are not enthusiastic. The concept may be untested or radical, but you will only know when you follow through on it.
What we learn: Staying the course and not giving up can make your dreams come true.
Lesson 4: Your story matters
Kavitha Rao mentions that the information available to her about these six extraordinary women was extremely limited. There are many more women who charted these waters, but remain undiscovered, their stories untold. As we have seen, Kavitha Rao’s book is not just about the past. These pioneers hold lessons for women today and will continue to do so.
We must communicate our struggles, celebrate our achievements, and share our stories. They can touch the lives of many others.
What we learn: Your story is the sum of your lived experiences. It is unique and it is important. It matters. It can bring hope, confidence, and change in others.