Meet the Women Pioneers Who Have Put India on the World Stage

Geetika Sachdev
·6-min read

India’s history is punctuated by stories of several firebrand women who took the off-beaten path and chose to live life on their own terms.

By breaking stereotypes, they helped promote gender equality.

MAKERS India captures the stories of Indian women who are pioneers in their fields not only on the home turf, but all over the world.

Reita Faria Powell

Born to a Goan family in Mumbai, Reita had a middle-class upbringing and never had dreams of living a glamorous life. Tall and attractive, she was often approached for modelling; but her interest lay in medicine that she was pursuing from Mumbai’s Grant Medical College.

Reita Faria of India, Miss World 1966, stands posing on the terrace of a hotel in London, England, on Sept. 14, 1967. (AP Photo)
Reita Faria of India, Miss World 1966, stands posing on the terrace of a hotel in London, England, on Sept. 14, 1967. (AP Photo)

On the insistence of her friends, she entered the Miss Bombay contest at the age of 22. In 1966, Reita was the first Asian woman to be crowned a Miss World. After winning the prized crown, she went ahead and completed her MBBS from King’s College, London. She is also the first Miss World crown winner to become a physician.

Arunima Sinha

Arunima Sinha became the world’s first female amputee to climb Mount Everest in 2013. She is also the first female amputee to climb Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica.

Arunima Sinha (AP Photo/ Bikram Rai)
Arunima Sinha (AP Photo/ Bikram Rai)

A former national level volleyball player-turned-mountaineer, Arunima, who belongs to Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, lost one of her legs, when she was thrown off a moving train for resisting chain snatching by goons in 2011. Instead of giving up, she displayed exemplary self-belief and determination, and decided to scale the highest peaks in the world.

In 2015, Arunima was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour in India.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the younger sister of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first woman to become president of the United Nations General Assembly.

India's ambassador to United States, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, United States, 23rd May 1949 (Photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
India's ambassador to United States, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, United States, 23rd May 1949 (Photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

As an active participant in the country’s freedom struggle, she was imprisoned thrice by the British. In Independent India, she worked in different capacities, including as a minister for local self-government and public health. She was the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet portfolio.

After her stint at the UN, she also served as the Indian High Commissioner in London (1954-61), and as Indian Ambassador to Dublin. In 1978, she was appointed the Indian representative to the UN Human Rights Commission.

Mary Kom

Manipur-based Mary Kom is the only woman boxer in the world who has won a medal in each of the six World Championships. In 2019, she became the only boxer to win eight medals at the World Championship. She was also the only Indian woman boxer who qualified for the 2012 Olympics and the first Indian woman boxer to win a gold medal in Asian Games (in 2014).

Mary Kom  (Photo by Raajessh Kashyap/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Mary Kom (Photo by Raajessh Kashyap/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A mother of three and a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha since April 2016, Mary is also holds the position of National Observer for Boxing. The Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation trains boxers in the 12-18 age group, free of cost.

Also Read: Meet 5 Women Shaping India’s Intellectual Landscape

Santosh Yadav

Santosh Yadav is the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest twice - in 1992 and 1993. Santosh was also a part of the nine-nation international climbing camp-cum-expedition to Nun Kun peaks in Himalayas in 1989.

Santosh Yadav, the only woman to have climbed Mount Everest twice, speaks during an interview in New Delhi, Oct. 19, 1997. In the last ten years, 30-year-old Yadav, who was raised in an Indian village where most girls did not study beyond the fifth grade and were married as soon as they reach puberty, has become an icon for the women of her region. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
Santosh Yadav, the only woman to have climbed Mount Everest twice, speaks during an interview in New Delhi, Oct. 19, 1997. In the last ten years, 30-year-old Yadav, who was raised in an Indian village where most girls did not study beyond the fifth grade and were married as soon as they reach puberty, has become an icon for the women of her region. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Born and brought up in Adygreg village in Rewari district, Haryana, Santosh pursued her academics from Maharani College in Jaipur. It was during this time that she got interested in mountaineering, and she decided to join Uttarkashi’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. As they say, the rest is history. Now 51, she works as an officer in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

Mithali Raj

Captain of the national women's cricket team, Mithali Raj is no stranger to fame. She was only 19, when in her third test, Mithali broke Karen Rolton's (Australia) record of world's highest individual Test score of 209 not out. Mithali set a new world record of 214 against England in the second and final Test in the year 2002.

PROVIDENCE, GUYANA - NOVEMBER 15: Mithali Raj of India poses with the player of the match award during the ICC Women's World T20 2018 match between India and Ireland at Guyana National Stadium on November 15, 2018 in Providence, Guyana. (Photo by Jan Kruger-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)
PROVIDENCE, GUYANA - NOVEMBER 15: Mithali Raj of India poses with the player of the match award during the ICC Women's World T20 2018 match between India and Ireland at Guyana National Stadium on November 15, 2018 in Providence, Guyana. (Photo by Jan Kruger-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Born to a Tamil family in Jodhpur, Mithali mostly grew up in Hyderabad learning the basics of cricket. Today, Mithali is the second most-capped player in ODI history behind Charlotte Edwards from England. She is only the third player in women's history to lead the country in more than 100 ODIs.

Also watch: The story of Dutee Chand - Olympic athlete and the first Indian athlete to openly come out as a member of the LGBTQA+ community.

Gita Gopinath

Indian-American economist Gita is the first woman to hold the position of Chief Economist, International Monetary Fund, since 2019. She is now the Director of IMF’s Research Department and Economic Counsellor of the Fund.

International Monetary Fund Chief Economist and Director of the Research Department Gita Gopinath leads a presentation of the IMF World Economic Outlook Update, in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
International Monetary Fund Chief Economist and Director of the Research Department Gita Gopinath leads a presentation of the IMF World Economic Outlook Update, in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Currently, she is on leave of public service from Harvard University’s Economics department where she is the John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and Economics.

She has previously served as the co-director of the International Finance and Macroeconomics program at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Gita has also served as the Economic Advisor to the Chief Minister of Kerala, from 2016-18. Gita has also been awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians.

Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi, famously known as ‘India’s human computer,’ was born in Bengaluru in 1929. She didn’t receive any formal education as a child, but became the master of the most dreaded subject - Mathematics.

The 'real' Shakuntala Devi (pictured) died in Bengaluru in 2013.
Shakuntala Devi (pictured) died in Bengaluru in 2013.

At an early age, she began to deliver public performances with her math skills. She spent her youth traversing India and Europe, and impressed the world with her incredible prowess in arithmetic.

She entered the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of world Records by multiplying two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds.

Shakuntala Devi dabbled in several fields, including astrology and politics. In 1977. She also wrote a book called The World of Homosexuals, the first Indian study of homosexuality.

Also Read: Meet The 17-Yr-Old Haryana Girl Who Went Against All Odds to Stop Child Labour

(Edited by Athira Nair)

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