Savitribai Phule - Go, get education

A painting in the Madhubani style by Delhi-based artist Malvika Raj, titled ‘Mai’, celebrating the life of Savitribai Phule. Photo: Malvika Raj

Born in Maharashtra, India, on January 3, 1831, about 50 km from Pule, Savitribai Phule was the youngest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Nevase Patil. [1] At the age of 9, she was married to Jyotirao Phule (known as Jyotiba), himself only 13, but the couple remained together for life. [2] Although she was illiterate when married, she was fortunate in marrying a progressive husband who taught her to read and write. [3] Savitribai also learnt from her husbands friends, Sakharam Yeshwant Paranjpe and Keshav Shivram Bhavalkar. This education allowed Savitribai to enrol on teacher training at a normal school in Pune and an institution run by Cynthia Farrar, an American Missionary, in Ahmednager. [3] Savitribai qualified as a teacher after passing her 4th examination in 1847,[4] thus earning her credit as India's first female teacher. [5]

Following her training, Savitribai taught girls at Maharawada in Pune. It was here that she met Sagunabai Kshirsagar a teacher and committed feminist. [6] The two connected over their belief in education for women and as a result Savitribai, aged just 17, Sagunabai and Jyotiba established their own school for girls at Bhide Wada in 1848. The curriculum was based on a more western model and students were taught subjects such as maths, science and social studies rather than traditional religious texts. The school began with just 9 girls, but eventually that grew to 25. [7]

Opening of the First School for Girls by Savitribai Phule and Jyotirao Phule by Malvika Asher 2016

The growing success of Savitribai's work was not without opposition. Conservative elements of society were strongly opposed to female education and argued that Savitribai's work was considered a sin under the Brahmana texts. [3] Opponents would throw stones, dung and verbal abuse at Savitribai as she walked to the school everyday, however, she always carried a spare sari with her so she could change and carry on with her work.

Originally, Savitribai and Jyotiba lived with his father, but they were asked to leave in 1849 as a result of the opposition to their work. The couple went to live with Jyotiba's friend Usman Sheikh and his sister Fatima Begum Sheikh. Fatima was a literate woman who had trained alongside Savitribai making her the first female Muslim teacher in India. The same year, Savitribai and Fatima established a school in Usman's home aimed at backward caste communities who might otherwise be denied an education.

By 1851, Savitribai and Jyotiba has established 3 schools for girls in Pune, with approximately 150 students were enrolled. They continued using a western curriculum and their teaching methods differed from those used at government schools. Divya Kandukuri suggests there methods were in fact superior. Their hard work was even recognised in 1852 by the British Government which declared Savitribai to be the best teacher in the Maharashtra state,[4] she was only 21. The following year, Savitribai and Jyotiba established and education society titled 'The Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs and Etceteras' which opened more schools for girls across Maharashtra. In total, the couple helped establish 18 schools over their lifetime.

Savitribai Phule Receiving British Accolades by Malvika Asher 2016

Savitribai's career in education is admirable, but her work did not cease there. The Phule couple were not only advocates of women's education but of the rights of women and people of lower castes to equality. In 1852, they started Mahila Seva Mandal an organisation which focused on raising awareness of women's rights and encouraging women to recognise their human rights as well as other social issues. [8] Through this, Savitribai organised a successful barbers strike in protest to the practice of shaving widow's heads - something which highlighted them as vulnerable therefore putting them at greater risk of abuse, rape and isolation. [7]

In 1854, a centre for widows was established by Savitribai in order to care for these vulnerable women, this was expanded in 1864 to allow for the care of destitute women, widows and child brides who had been cast aside by their families. The Phule couple made sure to educate all the women in their care. The couple had no children of their own but appear to have adopted the son of a widow called Yashwantrao and in 1889 they helped arrange his marriage as nobody was willing to give him their daughter as his mother was a widow. This demonstrates the level of discrimination present at the time against widows and their children.

The Legacy of Savitribai Phule by Malvika Asher 2016

Savitribai also opened Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha a care centre which aided the pregnant victims of rape and pregnant widows and helped deliver their infants safely. The centre was against practices such as female infanticide and encouraged mothers who couldn't support a child to have them adopted instead of abandoning them.

Savitribai believed in the equality of all, regardless of their caste and, since those of a lower caste could not drink from the village well, Savitribai and Jyotiba dug a well in their own garden for societies outcasts to use. Jyotiba's brainchild was Satyashodhak Samaj - the Truth-seekers society - which aimed at eliminating such discrimination as the limitation of wells. In 1890, Jyotiba died. He had supported his wife's many endeavours and had been a strong advocate for women's education and equality of castes. Against the social norms of the time, Savitribai lit her husbands funeral pyre, and then proceeded to take responsibility for the Truth-seekers society. In 1893, she even chaired the annual meeting for the society, a role that was revolutionary for a woman to hold - indeed it caused a furore at the time.

Busts of Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, a couple who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of equality in caste and education

When India was hit by a pandemic of Bubonic plague, Savitribai refused to sit by idle. She and her son Yashawant (who was a medical professional) opened a clinic to treat those affected by the disease. On a daily basis, Savitribai served meals to nearly 2,000 children - those whose families had been affected by the plague. It is perhaps unsurprising that a woman who dedicated her life to helping others should die doing the same. In 1897, Savitribai heard that the 10-year-old son of Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad had contracted the plague. She rushed to his side and carried him to hospital in her arms. In doing so, she caught the plague herself and on 10 March, 1897, Savitribai Phule, India's first female teacher, died.

Alongside her selfless deeds, Savitribai was an ardent poet. She published two collections of poems - Kavya Phule and Bhavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar. Her most iconic poem is titled 'Go, Get education' and was intended to encourage women to educate themselves as the best means of fighting inequality. Women's education in India owes much to Savitribai and the support she received from Jyotiba, Fatima Begum Sheikh and Sagunabai Kshirsagar. In 2015, the University of Pune was renamed Savitribai Phule Pune University in honour of her work, and a statue of her was erected there in 2021, almost 200 years after her birth. Every year, her birthday is celebrated as "Balika Din" in Maharashtra. She led a selfless life, and exceeded well beyond the expectations of a child bride from an unimportant caste. Her heroic death is evidence that she was willing to give everything in order to help those in need - even her life.


  1. Sundararaman, T. (2009). Savitribai Phule first memorial lecture, [2008]. National Council of Educational Research and Training. ISBN 978-81-7450-949-9
  2. Rege, Sharmila (2009). Savitribai Phule Second Memorial Lecture, [2009]. National Council of Educational Research and Training. ISBN978-8-17450-931-4
  3. Kandukuri, Divya (11 January 2019). "The life and times of Savitribai Phule".
  5. Sundararaman, T. (2009). Savitribai Phule first memorial lecture, [2008]. National Council of Educational Research and Training. ISBN978-81-7450-949-9.
  6. "सावित्रीबाई फुले : भारतीय स्त्री मुक्तीच्या जनक | Savitribai Phule-Pioneer of Women's Education and Liberation". eSakal - Marathi Newspaper.