"Kadambini is a symbol that India's freedom would uplift India's womanhood." - Annie Besant.
Kadambini broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for millions of ambitious women by becoming a pioneer in women's liberation and work in the field of medicine. At a time when women's roles were limited to being homemakers, Kadambini Ganguly educated herself in a male-dominated field and became a woman of many firsts.
Kadambini Basu was born on 18 July 1861 at Bhagalpur, Bihar during the British rule. Her father is Brahmo reformer Braja Kishore Basu who was the headmaster of Bhagalpur School in the state. Basu believed in women's rights and emancipation. He was involved with several social movements surrounding women empowerment, in the 19th century. Along with Abhay Charan Mallick, he helped in establishing the women's organisation 'Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti' in 1863, which was the first in India at the time.
Due to her father's immense support, Kadambini did her education at Banga Mahila Vidyalaya and became the first woman to pass the University of Calcutta entrance exams. Along with Chandramukhi Basu, she became the first graduates from Bethune College.
Due to her interest in the field of medicine, she started studying at Calcutta Medical College and a Graduate of Bengal Medical College degree afterwards.
Along with Anandi Gopal Joshi, she became qualified to practise Western medicine. It was not easy for women at the time which continues to see social evils like child marriage, widow system and lack of education access to women. Women faced misogynist obstacles as well.
Social activist Abala Bose was refused admission to the medical college. Women's higher education was completely disregarded.
Kadambini herself faced obstacles from the medical college as they didn't want to admit female students. Her husband Dwarakanath Ganguly also fought for her entrance in the medical college. She also faced opposition from teachers and conservative sections that didn't want to see a woman enter a traditionally male-dominated field. One professor failed her in a paper, thus she missed her degree at that time.
In 1892, she went abroad and returned with qualifications like; Licentiate of the College of Physicians (Edinburgh), Licentiate of the College of Surgeons (Glasgow), and Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons (Dublin) in medicine. She worked as a gynaecologist in Lady Dufferin Hospital and did private practice later on.
Even during her working days also she faced discrimination. She was labelled a ‘whore’ by an editorial. A rich patient served her food on the verandah of the house and even asked her to clean the place, which was expected from women in general from the misogynist society.
However, she had striking moments in her career, like when male doctors diagnosed that a young girl had a tumour in her stomach, Kadambini identified that she was pregnant and helped in safely delivering the child.
In 1883, Kadambini married Dwarkanath Ganguly who was a widower and 17 years older than her. They had eight children together. Kadambini's work as a doctor slowed down due to household work and social obstacles. Many refused to acknowledge their marriage due to Dwarkanth Ganguly's status as a widower, though it was culturally permissible for widowers to get remarried at a time when even Sati was practised.
More than that, their roles in the emancipation of women and fight for women's rights drew ire from a conservative society.
Women getting higher education was regarded as a taboo and Kadambini was labelled as ‘characterless’. At that time, a religious orthodox magazine 'Bangabashi' called her a "whore" and questioned her qualifications as a doctor. Kdamabini was so enraged that she filed a case against the magazine editor in court. The editor Mahesh Pal was sentenced to 6 months in jail for defaming her and she received compensation.
With her father as an inspiration, Kadambini along with her husband fought for women's rights. She fought for the improvement of working conditions of female coal miners and tea workers, where the majority comes from marginalised backgrounds.
After the partition of Bengal, she organised the Women's Conference in Calcutta in 1906 and in 1908.
Before that, Kadambini was one out of six female delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1889, which was a landmark change because women were not allowed to be part of the INC earlier, something her husband opposed.
She helped raise money and funds for workers of Satyagraha. One of the Congress leaders and feminist Annie Besant hailed Kadambini and saw her as India's future womanhood.
In 1915, at a major medical conference, she spoke against the practice of Calcutta Medical College of not allowing women to study medicine and about the discrimination she herself faced. This became one of the many steps that led to the education of women and the liberation of Brahmo women.
Kadambini remained a determined and persistent worker even during her later years. She had high blood pressure but never let it become an obstacle. She died at the age of 63. What's remarkable was that she conducted a critical operation on a patient hours before she died peacefully at her home.
Due to her achievements, Kadambini Ganguly is regarded as an icon for women in STEM and social justice. The courage and determination of women like her spearheaded the movement that earned the rights of following generations of women.