Kerala's Outstanding Women - International Womens Day

Kerala`s Outstanding Women - These are only a few
  • This article tells you about the achievements of 15 Kerala Women who were born post 1890.

Ever since the Supreme Court said that debarring women of a specific age-group from worshipping at the Sabarimala Temple was discriminatory and contrary to the gender equality that is assured by the Constitution, Kerala and its women are in the news. 

But, on a day such as this – International Women’s Day, 8th March – it is time to reaffirm our faith in women to take things forward, and earn their rightful place under the sun.

The women featured below, born 1890 onwards, achieved what they did long before the concept of equality became a fashionable word.  

Women’s empowerment is ‘work in progress’, there is no denying this. On this day, we recall through thumb-nail sketches who in the last century or thereabout took giant leaps into what was hitherto the man’s world. That they dared to step into territories and blazed a trail for future generations is reason enough to put our memories n rewind and recall their contributions.

Poets, activists, politicians, dancers, writers, sportswomen, social reformers, lawyers and scientists were trailblazers, but to dwell on all of them will be a long-term exercise. Some of the women featured are  Arya Antharjanam, Lakshmi N Menon, Akkamma Cheriyan, Anna Chandy, KR Gouri Amma, P T Usha, Mary Lukose, Mary Lukose, Anna Malhotra, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Justice P Janaki Amma. Names of women do not appear in any chronological order.

In Kerala, women comprise 51 per cent of the population and therefore we can borrow Mao Zedong’s words ‘Women hold up half the sky’ to read, ‘Women hold up more than half the sky’.

Women’s progress in the past hundred years or so cannot be explained without placing in context the geography where it happened. Before it became a state, Kerala consisted of three different units: Travancore under the royals, so also Kochi and Malabar in the north was part of the Madras Presidency which was under British control. Note that in 1903, the Maharaja accepted the responsibility of imparting free primary education to all the children in Travancore.

These three regions did not have a common political history, but socially the local mores influenced by the feudal societal standards was one where patriarchy set the rules for women. Their lives, voices and creative energies were hemmed in by dos and don’ts.

With the coming of colonial rule came the spread of English education, missionary activity and social reform. It was only natural therefore that women too received education, even if it meant education was not reaching all.

It is indeed a striking feature of the times that some of the women who have earned their space under the sun were women from the Nambudiri community, the Brahmins of Kerala, the landholding class. Orthodoxy and entrenched patriarchal practices had confined the Nambudiri women, known as ‘antharjanam’, meaning ‘people who are confined to the interiors of their homes’. Nambudiri tradition had built-in inequalities: only the eldest married into the caste and the others entered into sambandhams (informal conjugal ties) mostly with Nair men. With men marrying into other communities, many of the Nambudiri women remained unmarried, spending all their lives bound in by the regressive customs. Men took many wives but widows were not privileged to remarry.

The Nambudiri woman also suffered the threat of trial by men if they were found crossing established strictures on the woman. These courts were empowered to strip a woman of the little position she had in the home.  

With little scope to find a suitable environment to fulfill their innate abilities, few had the opportunity to express themselves. But, some of them made it to places till then considered male domains and amongst them are the names featured here, though this is in no way a complete and exhaustive account, but an indicative one on the fields women entered.

Lalithambika Antharjanam 1909 to 1987

Born in 1909 at Kottavattom in the Kollam district she had little formal education; however, managed to learn to read and write. All knowledge she acquired was from her male relatives who were willing to familiarize her with the happenings of the world outside. The freedom movement had gathered momentum and the young, thinking Antharjanam was deeply influenced. Marriage in 1926 cut her off from the world outside, but it also showed her the complex lives of her sisters: a hard day in the kitchens, lives caught up in petty jealousies, but in all this, she found a way to express herself.

Writing she did under the light of an oil lamp and behind shut doors. The pent up feelings and the unfairness in the treatment of women found expression in the iconic novel Agnisakshi (Fire being the Witness). Her other books have highlighted the choices before women and their role as a core unifier in society.


2 Arya Antharjanam 1917 to 2016

Aka Arya Premji was an icon for the role in battling orthodoxy that confined the Nambudiri woman, and for her unassailable role in the landmark revolutionary changes that were effected in the Nambudiri society. A widow at the tender age of 15 and remained one for 12 long years before she broke tradition by remarrying MP Bhattathirippad (later called Premji), actor, writer, and social reformer. This was the second widow remarriage in the Nambudiri community which was steeped in feudalistic and upper-caste socio-cultural milieu.


When she died on 22 May, 2016 at age 99, the last of the witnesses to dramatic times in Kerala’s social history had exited.  One cannot, however, overlook the fact there were Nambudiri men who led from the front the social reforms within their community. One such instance is the facilitator’s role played by EMS Namboodirippad, Kerala’s first Communist Chief Minister, in Arya Antharjanam’s second marriage.


3 Lakshmi N Menon 1899 to 1994

She was a freedom fighter, politician and a Rajya Sabha member from 1952 to 1966. She served in the Ministry of External Affairs, as deputy minister from 1957 to 1962 and as Minister of State from 1962 to 1966. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1957.

Menon dedicated her active life after politics for the cause of the nation. She served the All India Women's Conference as president and patron for many years. She was the vice president of All India Prohibition Council along with Morarji Desai. In 1988, she along with AP Udayabhanu and Johnson J Edayaranmula established Alcohol & Drug Information Centre (ADIC) - India and served as its president till her death. She also served as president of the All India Committee for the Eradication of Illiteracy among Women and as chairman of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust from 1972 to 1985.

On retirement from political service in 1967, she turned to social work and also to writing, authoring among other things a book on Indian women for the Oxford Pamphlets on Indian Affairs Series, published by Oxford University Press.

Akkamma Cheriyan 1909 to 1982

She was popularly known as Jhansi Rani of Travancore, an epithet Mahatma Gandhi gave her. She led the Quit India Movement of 1942 and was imprisoned while she was the Congress acting president. Born on 14 February, 1909 at Kanjirappally, she graduated in History from St. Teresa’s College, Ernakulam. In the same year she led a mass rally in Thiruvananthapuram to the Kowdiar palace to submit a petition seeking democratic freedom.

The British police chief ordered to fire upon the rally. Akkamma Cheriyan who stood in front of the rally shouted ‘I am the leader; shoot me first before you kill others!’ These courageous words forced the police authorities to withdraw their orders. She was arrested and convicted for violating prohibitory orders in 1939. Akkamma, after her release from jail, became a full-time worker of the State Congress. In 1942, she became its Acting President.

In 1947, after independence, Akkamma was elected to the Travancore Legislative Assembly from Kanjirappally unopposed. In 1967, she contested the Assembly election as an independent candidate and was defeated. She, then, slowly withdrew from active politics. Later, she served as a member of the Freedom Fighters’ Pension Advisory Board. 

AV Kuttimalu Amma 1905 to 1985

She began her public life as an active Khadi and Swadeshi worker in 1930 and in 1931 led women in the picketing of foreign cloth-shops in Kozhikode. 

During the Civil-Disobedience Movement, she was arrested and convicted for two years. Her leading a procession with her two-month-old baby in her arms is etched in public memory to this day.

In 1936, she was elected to the Madras Assembly. During the Quit India Movement, she was detained for two years in the Presidency jail for women. After her release in 1944, she took up the task of organizing Congress in Malabar and became KPCC President for a term. 

She had also served as a member of AICC and the Congress Working Committee. In 1946, she was again elected as a member of Madras Legislative Assembly. She had also been the Director of the Mathrubhumi publications and President of Malabar Hindi Prachar Sabha.

Anna Chandy 

6 Anna Chandy 1905 to 1996

She was the first woman High Court judge in India and often described as a ‘first generation feminist’, and also the first woman judge in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Born and raised in Trivandrum, she received a post-graduate degree in 1926, and went on to become the first woman in her state to get a law degree. She practised as a barrister from 1929 while simultaneously promoting the cause of women's rights through ‘Shrimati’, a magazine she both founded and edited. 

Chandy contested for election to the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly in 1931. She met with hostility but was elected for the period 1932-34.

During her retirement, Chandy served on the Law Commission of India and also wrote an autobiography titled Atmakatha (1973).


Just to put matters in perspective, “The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.”

7 Annie Mascarene 1902 to 1963

She was an Indian freedom fighter and Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram in the first ever general elections to the Indian Parliament. A double  MA in History and Economics in 1925 from Maharaja's College Travancore, following her return from a teaching stint in Ceylon, she went on to earn a degree in law at the Maharaja's Colleges for Arts and Law, Trivandrum.


Mascarene was one of the first women to join the Travancore State Congress and along with Akkamma Cherian and Pattom Thanu Pillai, she was one of the leaders of the movements for independence and integration with the Indian nation in the Travancore State. For her political activism she was imprisoned for various periods between 1939 and 1947.

 KR Gouri

8 KR Gouri Amma  1919 onwards 

This centenarian politician, a Leftist by political leaning has been a major presence in the Communist movement in the state. Hailing from Alapuzha, the nursery of Communism in Kerala, Gouri Amma has held position in Left-led governments of 1957, 1967, 1980 and 1987. 


The epochal Land Reform Bill in Kerala she piloted as the Minister for Revenue of the Communist Government is one the greatest achievements of Gowri Amma. One of the first things the Communist Ministry did was to promulgate an Ordinance banning evictions of all tenants and kudikidappukar throughout the state. In the comprehensive Agrarian Relations Bill, ownership rights on land were conferred to tenants including sharecroppers and a ceiling fixed for the land a land-owner could possess. It also had provisions for distributing the surplus land taken from the landlords to the landless poor.


Over various LDF Ministries she held important posts – Agriculture, Revenue, Industries among others, but when EK Nayanar pipped her to the Chief Ministerial chair, she went out of the Marxist Party to form the JSS – Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samiti.


At 100, she is not very active, but her name can still garner votes, which speaks of the influence she holds over a large segment of the electorate.


9 Mary Lukose  1886 to 1976

Née Mary Poonen, was born to a rich family on 2 August 1886 in Aymanam, the little hamlet in Kottayam. Daughter of T. E. Poonen, the first medical graduate in Travancore and the Royal Physician of the Travancore state, she was denied admission for science subjects at the Maharaja’s College, Thiruvananthapuram (present-day University College).

Since Indian universities did not offer admission to women for medicine, she moved to London and secured MBBS from the London University, becoming the first woman from Kerala to graduate in Medicine. She continued in the UK to obtain MRCOG (Gynecology and Obstetrics) and later worked in various hospitals there whilst simultaneously pursued music studies to pass the London Music Examination.

On her return to India in 1916, she took up the post of an obstetrician at the Women and Children Hospital, Thycaud in Thiruvananthapuram where she introduced midwifery training program for the children of local midwives in order to win over their support and is known to have delivered her first-born at the same hospital. 

In 1922, she was nominated to the legislative assembly of Travancore, known as Sree Chitra State Council, thus becoming the first woman legislator in the state. In 1938 she became the Surgeon-General, and is reported to have been the first woman to be appointed as the surgeon-general in the world. As the surgeon-general of the state, she founded the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Nagarcoil, one of the first sanatoriums in India, which later grew to become the Kanyakumari Government Medical College

Besides her professional achievements, she was the founder president YWCA in 1918, and continued in the post till 1968. She served as the Chief Commissioner of the Girl Guides in India and was also a founder member of the Indian Medical Association and the Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI), which started as Obstetric and Gynecological Society.


10 Anna Malhotra 1927 to 2018 

Nee George, she was the first woman in India to enter the IAS. She belonged to the 1951 batch and married R. N. Malhotra, her batch mate.

Born in 1927 in NiranamAlleppey district, she grew up in Calicut and completed her intermediate from Providence Women's College and bachelor's degree from Malabar Christian College in Calicut. In 1949 she obtained her master's in English literature from University of Madras. Malhotra was discouraged from joining the service by the board which consisted of four ICS officers, headed by R.N. Banerjee the Chairman of UPSC and instead offered the Foreign Service and Central Services because they were 'more suitable for women'. But, she was determined to continue in the IAS.

Her first posting as a civil servant was in the erstwhile Madras state whose Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari was skeptical about giving a woman charge of a district; instead, she was offered a post in the Secretariat. Eventually she was posted as the Sub Collector of Tirupattur, again a first for a woman. She worked under seven chief ministers and worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in the ASIAD Project and briefly with Indira Gandhi. To Malhotra goes the credit for building India's first computerized port, Nhavasheva, near Mumbai.

She was also the first Malayali woman to hold her place in the steel framework and showed the way at a time when women were not given enough opportunities in the IAS.

“There were hardly any woman officers, not only in the IAS but in other fields; she had to work so much harder,” the words of a contemporary colleague Madhavan Nambiar. Anna Malhotra was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1990.

Mrinalini Sarabhai 

11 Mrinalini Sarabhai 1918 to 2018

A renowned Indian classical dancer, charted her own path in her trajectory of dance. An activist and an author, she was married to the renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai. She carved out a separate niche for herself as a renowned dancer.

Mrinalini Sarabhai was born in Kerala as the daughter of Subbarama Swaminathan, a barrister at the Madras High Court and a social worker, parliamentarian and Ammu Swaninathan, a freedom fighter mother. Coming from a progressive background gave her a take-off few could get. On her return to India from Switzerland, while she was studying at Shantiniketan she realized that dancing was her true calling and she wanted to pursue a career in it.

However, her biggest contribution to the field of dance remains the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, which she established with her husband in Ahmedabad, in 1949.

‘From being tagged a devadasi, she became known as ‘Amma’ in Gujarat, and became a pioneer of the very same South Indian classical dance forms that had earlier brought her brickbats. Not only had she broken the acceptability barrier in the state but had also created a following for herself and transformed into a role model for girls, who now wanted to be like Mrinalini Sarabhai. She used dance to express her points of view on themes like environment, social evils, and discrimination.

Nalapat Balamani Amma 

12 Nalapat Balamani Amma 1909 to 2004

She was a prolific poet, known as the "poetess of motherhood". Amma (Mother), Muthassi (Grandmother), and Mazhuvinte Katha (The story of the Axe) were some of her well-known works. Author of twenty anthologies, she was recipient of the Padma Bhushan, Saraswati SammanSahitya Akademi Award, and Ezhuthachan Award. She was the mother of the internationally renowned writer-poet Kamala Surayya aka Kamala Das / Madhavikutty.

Though not formally educated, as the niece of poet Nalapat Narayana Menon, she had the environment conducive to develop her interest and his collection of books helped her become a poet. She was influenced by him and the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon.


13 Sugathakumari

Sugathakumari, poetess, environmentalist, activist, teacher and social workers is a major presence in Kerala. To her goes the credit of having led from front the movement to save the Silent Valley (1973) on which a dam was planned

A former chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, she is also founder of a home for the destitute and for people with mental illnesses in Thiruvananthapuram called Abhaya.

14 Kamala Surayya aka Kamala Das and Madhavikutty  1934 to 2009

She belongs to the line of Indian English Poets who brought into English Poetry and Indian Writing in English a freshness in theme and structure. Her prose is generally in Malayalam while her verse is mostly in English. ‘Indian Poet and Daring Memoirist’ was how the New York Times described her in the tribute they paid her on her demise. 

The New York Times describes her style thus: ‘She wrote several memoirs, the most famous of them, “My Story,” written in English and published in 1976. In it, Ms. Das recounts her childhood in an artistic but emotionally distant family; her unfulfilling arranged marriage to an older man shortly before her 16th birthday; the emotional breakdowns and suicidal thoughts that punctuated her years as a young wife and mother; her husband’s apparent homosexuality; and the deep undercurrent of sexual and romantic yearning that ran through most of her married life….’ 

For decades a public figure in India, Ms. Das by many accounts embraced both controversy and contradiction. Championed by feminists for writing about women’s oppression, she declined to be identified as a feminist herself. She ran unsuccessfully for a seat in India’s Parliament in 1984 but later turned away from political life. Born in a reputed Nair family, she converted to Islam in 1999 and for a time called herself Kamala Suraiya. Highly publicized, her conversion drew criticism, for a diverse array of reasons, from Hindus, Muslims and feminists.’ But, her writings have received accolades both in the country and abroad.


15 PT Usha

ThePayyoli Express’ or the ‘Golden Girl of the Tracks’ is the byword for tenacity and the never-say-die attitude. From Payyoli a nondescript village near Badagara, Usha trained at the Kannur Sports School, and the talent was identified by her coach OM Nambiar.


Usha won 102 national/International medals and awards during her illustrious career which attracted attention with her representing India at the Moscow and San Francisco Olympics. A recipient of the prestigious Arjuna Award and Padma Shree in 1984 for outstanding performance in sports, and in 1985, she was adjudged the best women athlete at the Jakarta Asian Athlete meet.

At 54, Usha spends her time grooming young talent for the tracks. Till Usha came on the scene, sports and facilities for sportspersons had not acquired any importance in the policymaking exercises of the government. Her academy built on a 2-acre plot given by the Government of Kerala is the nursery for many young girls who dared to dream of life in athletics after Usha set the benchmark.

16 Justice P Janaki Amma 1920 to 2005

She was the second woman in India to be a judge of a High Court. She joined the Cochin Praja Mandalam after completing her studies and later joined the Indian National Congress. She participated in the Indian Independence Movement from 1940 to 1944. She was a member of the Ernakulam Municipality from 1949 to 1953. After entering the judicial services, she kept out of politics.

She served as a judge till April 1982 and was engaged by the Kerala Government in many probes and enquiry commissions.

In 1985, she became the founder president of the People's Council for Social Justice (PCSJ), an organization that was created under the initiative of Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, to ensure social justice through legal assistance and legal education.

17 CK Janu

An Adivasi leader who as leader of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha that grew out of the Dalit-Adivasi Action Council in Kerala state, a social movement, has been pushing for land to be redistributed to landless adivasis. Janu is spearheading the struggle of Kerala’s 3.5 lakh landless adivasis (tribals). In 2001, Janu launched an agitation that propelled a tribal movement for land to the centre-stage of political discourse in Kerala.


18 Dr EK Janaki Ammal 1897 to 1984

The leading magazine Frontline described her thus, ‘the country’s first home- grown woman scientist, who went overseas and returned accomplished, breaking every caste and gender barrier through her work. She was the first Indian woman botanist, a brilliant mind with experience in international institutes of repute. 

Just take a moment to think where we would be without the inventions of this brilliant mind.’

Her research in cross-breeding’s in the laboratory of Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore in the 1930s, created the indigenous variety of sweetened sugarcane that we consume today. Although India was producing ample sugarcane, she was importing sugar from the Far East as the Indian sugarcane strains were not sweet enough.

On the insistence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she returned to India in the 1950s and restructured the Botanical Society of India, travelling to several remote areas of the country in search of the plant lore of the indigenous people and collecting medicinal plants in her home State, Kerala.

During her years at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, Norfolk, she laboured on gorgeous Magnolia. She co-authored The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants with renowned biologist CD Darlington. How many of us know that the saplings she planted on the Battleston Hill in Wisley bloom every spring to this day, and one of the pure white blooms is named after her, the Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

A fascinating figure of the early 20th Century she was. EK Janaki Ammal lived a life which perhaps very few women of her time could dream of. The distinguished geneticist, cytologist and global plant geographer studied about ecology and biodiversity too and did not fear to take on the Government as an ardent environmental activist. She received the Padmashri in 1977.

An exemplary journey for a woman from Thaliserri in Kerala to the crème-de-la-crème of research organizations in the world, Janaki Ammal did not receive the fame she deserved in her own land, but her achievements are recognized across the world.

Two women achievers whom this article missed writing about is former ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao  and Agni Missile woman Teslie Thomas.

This is just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to documenting the lives of women who dared to achieve what they wanted in a society which had only seen women as homemakers.

Truly empowered they become the torch bearers of a liberation and empowerment for the woman, icons to inspire future generations.

Also read

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2 -Pics of the world’s largest all women festival Attukal Ponkala

3 Contribution of the Rulers of Travancore to the advancement of education in Kerala

4 How British created the Dowry system in Punjab

5 Why Ahilyabai Holkar was a great woman

6 All you wanted to know about the worship of Swami Aiyappan

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