Savitribai Phule was born in a well-to-do farmer`s family on 3rd January 1831 at Naigaum of Satara district in Maharashtra. She was married to Jyotiba Phule at the age of nine. She was encouraged by her husband to get educated and thus started her journey in the emancipation of the women-folk of her village.
As Jyotiba Phule required women teachers to assist him in attaining his goal, he decided to first teach and train his own wife as a teacher. Slowly the news of his teaching Savitri reached his father who threatened to drive him out of his house, fearing attack from orthodox elements. When the choice before Savitribai was either going away with her husband or staying back with her in-laws, she preferred to be with her husband. Then, Jyotiba sent her to a to a training school from where she passed out with flying colours along with a Muslim lady Fatima Sheikh. When Savitribai completed her studies, she along, with her husband, started a school for girls in Pune in 1848.
The nine girls who enrolled themselves as students belonged to different castes. Leaving the house in the morning and going to the school was an ordeal for Savitribai. Orthodox society was not prepared for this `misadventure`, as women`s education was frowned upon. It was believed that if a woman starts writing she would write letters to all. People claimed that the food, her husband ate would turn into worms and she would lose him by his untimely death.
However, apart from all these oppositions, Savitribai yet continued to teach the girls. Whenever Savitribai went out of her house, groups of orthodox men would follow her and abuse her in obscene language. They would throw rotten eggs, cow dung, tomatoes and stones at her. She would walk meekly and arrive at her school. Fed up with the treatment meted out to her, she even decided to give up. But it was because of her husband that she continued with her efforts. Jyotiba purposely gave her two saris. He told Savitribai to wear the coarse sari on her way to the school to receive all the filth that society heaped on her, whereas the other one was to change before her classes. She would then, again wear the same dirty sari while returning home.
The ordeal continued for a long time till Savitribai had to slap a person who tried to molest her. That slap brought to an end her ordeal and she continued her job of teaching. Slowly and steadily, she established herself. She started more schools and was ultimately honoured by the British for her educational work. In 1852 Jyotiba and Savitribai were felicitated and presented with a shawl each by the government for their commendable efforts in Yishrambag Wada.
However, it was not only in the educational activities, but she always supported her husband in every social struggle that he launched. Once Jyotiba saw a lady stopped a pregnant lady from committing suicide and promised her to give the child his name, after it was born. After she was brought to his house, Savitribai readily accepted her and willingly assured to help her deliver the child. Savitribai and Jyotiba later on adopted this child. He then grew up to become a doctor and after Jyotiba`s death, lit his pyre and completed his duties as a rightful son.
This incident opened new horizons for the couple. They thought of the plight of widows in Hindu society. Many women were driven to commit suicide by men who had exploited them to satisfy their lust and then deserted them. Therefore, Savitribai and Jyotiba put boards on streets about the “Delivery Home” for women on whom pregnancy had been forced. The delivery home was called “Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha”.
The next step was equally revolutionary. During those days marriages were arranged between young girls and old men. Men used to die of old age or some sickness and the girls they had married were left widows. Thus, widows were not expected to use cosmetics or to look beautiful. Their heads were shaved and the widows were compelled by society to lead an ascetic life.
Savitribai and Jyotiba were moved by the plight of such widows and castigated the barbers. They organized a strike of barbers and persuaded them not to shave the heads of widows. This was the first strike of its kind. They also fought against all forms of social prejudices. They were moved to see the untouchables who were refused drinking water meant for the upper caste. Both Jyotiba and Savitribai opened up their reservoir of water to the untouchables in the precincts of their house.
Savitribai shared every activity in which her husband was engaged. She suffered with him but she had her own distinctive personality. After his demise, Savitribai took over the responsibility of Satya Shodhak Samaj, founded by Jyotiba. She presided over meetings and guided workers. She worked relentlessly for the victims of plague, where she organized camps for poor children. It is said that she used to feed two thousand children every day during the epidemic. By a strange irony, she herself was struck by the disease while nursing a sick child and died on 10 March 1897.
Savitribai`s poems and other writings are still an inspiration to others. Ten years before Pandita Ramabai was born, this lady who was born in the backward Mali community, could express herself in the most radical and eloquent terms. She was the first woman teacher, the first woman educationist, the first poet and the foremost emancipator of women. Two books of her poems were published, Kavya Phule in 1934 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1982. If Savitribai were not to undergo the ordeals she went through, the women of India would not have attained even the status they have today in society.