In January 1930, the Madras Legislative Council was discussing a law on prostitution. A fundamental point of contention was how the law should define a prostitute. The definition before the council was: “Prostitute means a woman who offers her body for indiscriminate sexual intercourse for hire.” Some members did not agree with the different standards of morality and the onus of prostitution being cast only on women. They rallied around an amendment that defined a prostitute as a person of either sex. Dr S Muthulakshmi Reddi, the first woman lawmaker in the country, and the only woman among the more than 100 members of the council, proposed this definition.
The Government of India Act of 1919 had made it possible for women to vote in an election. This law gave legislative councils in the provinces the option to decide the qualification of voters in an election. In 1921, Madras Legislative Council passed a resolution giving some women the power to vote. Then, another resolution a few years later paved the way for women to become lawmakers. In 1926, the government nominated 40-year-old Dr Reddi to the legislative council.
In her maiden speech to congratulate the council president on his election, she said, “I am the only lady member in this assembly even though one half of the population are women. You know, sir, that our position in society is still backward and we have many grievances, one of which is that only two women out of every hundred are able to read and write. So you will side with me in all my attempts to ameliorate their condition realising that no country or nation will prosper without the active support and cooperation of women.”
Her colleagues elected her as the deputy president to chair the council’s proceedings in the absence of the president. PT Rajan, the grandfather of the current finance minister of Tamil Nadu, moved the motion for her election. Felicitating her, a council member remarked that she might be the first woman in the world to be presiding over a legislature.
Dr Reddi came from a humble background and overcame personal hardship to complete her degree in medicine. She used her insights as a working doctor to highlight public health issues, their financing and infrastructure. Dr Reddi also focused her legislative interventions on the protection of women. She worked extensively to abolish the Devadasi system. Her efforts led to the strengthening of the Madras Immoral Traffic Act. The legislative council dropped the reference to women in the definition of prostitution. She was also able to increase the age at which girls could be rescued from brothels.
Over the years, the trend of women’s representation in our legislatures has not been encouraging. The percentage of women in Lok Sabha has never exceeded 15% of the directly elected house. The situation in state legislative assemblies is no better. After the first general elections in 1952, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru wrote to the chief ministers of states about the low number of women elected to legislatures.
In his letter, he said, “I am quite sure that our real and basic growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life. Wherever they have had this chance, they have, as a whole, done well, better if I may say so, than the average man. Our laws are man-made, our society dominated by man, and so most of us naturally take a very lopsided view of the matter. We cannot be objective, because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action. But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men.”
Last month was the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the women’s reservation bill in Parliament. Dr Reddi championed the cause of reservation for women in elected bodies. In a debate in the Madras legislative council, she said, “We want reservation not because men would be opposed to our interests, but because women’s point of view should be represented by women.”