The following essay revisits the interesting life of Anandibai Joshee. Anandibai went from being married at the age of nine by her orthodox family to becoming India’s first female doctor of Western medicine.
“In my humble opinion there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one” – Anandibai Joshee (Dall)
Anandibai Joshee nee Yamuna Joshi was born to a Brahmin family in Kalyan on March 30, 1865. At the tender age of nine, she was married to Gopalrao Joshee, a twenty-seven-year-old postmaster who lived in Nashik. On the condition of no interference from Anandi’s family in pursuit of her education, Gopalrao Joshee married Anandi. Thus began her journey to become the first Indian woman to receive an MD in western medicine.
Hailing from an impecunious orthodox family, Joshee’s entrance into Anandi’s life became the only source of her education. While Anandi’s father enrolled her in school, the kind of education she received owing to Joshee’s connections was not something her father could have provided even if he wanted to. This could be the reason why most of Anandibai’s biographers have indulged in painting Joshee as the hero of her life. Indeed, Joshee became an important medium through which Anandi set on a journey of higher education and enlightenment. It would, however, be wrong to not view Anandi in the context of her developing womanhood, liberal thinking, and fragmented feminism.
In pursuit of better educational opportunities, Anandi and Joshee frequently moved places within India. From Alibag to Bombay to Bhuj and then to the Bengal Presidency. In all these places, Anandi received heavy backlash from society for pursuing education. In one of her letters, she explains the backlash in detail,
“The Babus lay bare their levity by making fun of everything. “Who are you?” “What caste do you belong to?” “Whence do you come?” “Where do you go?” are, in my opinion, a question that should not be asked from strangers” (Dall).
Even amidst societal distress, Joshee was hell-bent on sending Anandi to America for higher education. Anandi shared her husband’s ambition but for her independent reasons. She was determined to go to America for a medical degree as she believed in the urgent need for an Indian female doctor. She also believed that female doctors were better suited to understand the plight of female patients. Female patients were shy and would seldom consult male doctors. Anandibai’s aim to produce a safe space for women to avoid health repercussions was therefore an important and inclusive measure in healthcare.
In the process of finding ways to go to America, Joshee took the help of various Missionary reviews in America. It was a correspondence published in a review for the same that caught the eye of B.F Carpenter, a Philadelphian missionary. Carpenter was persuaded to offer her full support to Anandibai in her pursuit of a medical degree. In India, their ambition resulted in vehement societal opposition. In 1883, Anandibai successfully overcame the opposition through her cogent public address at Serampore College, West Bengal.
An excerpt from her speech,
“I go to America because I wish to study medicine. I now address the ladies present here, who will be the better judges of the importance of medical assistance in India. I never consider this subject without being surprised that none of those societies so laudably established in India for the promotion of sciences and female education have ever thought of sending one of their female members into the most civilized parts of the world. In my humble opinion, there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one” (Dall).
In 1883, with Carpenter’s help and escorted by American missionary women, an eighteen-year-old Anandibai reached America and joined the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1886, Anandibai received her medical degree thus becoming the first Indian woman to successfully receive an MD in western medicine. Owing to her degrading health conditions, Anandibai scrapped the idea of spending another year in the US to gain experience and moved to Kolhapur where she was appointed as a lady doctor. Unfortunately, due to her deteriorating health, Anandibai was unable to start her practice and passed away soon after returning to India on February 29, 1887.
Anandibai Joshee maintained a patriotic and nationalist stand in most of her public addresses. She did not shy away from preaching the ideals of a devoted wife. She, alongside her husband, was also an ardent supporter of child marriage. However, in her many private letters to Carpenter, with whom she had developed a deep familial bond, she wrote about the gender discrimination she faced throughout her education. Her privately expressed views acknowledged women’s subordinate role in marriage, obstacles in women’s education, and lack of healthcare infrastructure for and by women. Further, her stance on healthcare for women was something she never shied away from, both publicly and privately. Despite being grateful to her husband, she was critical of his ways which involved emotional and physical abuse, the scars of which had forever been imprinted in her heart. She was also extremely critical of son preference among Indian parents (Dall).
Anandibai’s critical liberal thinking on varied social issues travels back and forth between a sense of internalised loyalty towards her culture and the enlightenment she received through her education which allowed her to question everything around her. This brings into question the very nature of critical thinking. Are views only taken into consideration when they are explicitly expressed or do private views also find a space in intellectual liberal discourse? Women throughout history have been silenced and denied basic rights which have led to their absence in public life. It becomes necessary to acknowledge the liberal standpoints around marriage and education that women like Anandibai developed even if they were formed in a private setting. The fragments of these thoughts found their way in her public statements that demanded social reforms. Not only that but it also led a young Anandi to travel overseas alone to an alien land and culture and gain a medical degree amidst all odds.
Besides being an inspiring historical figure, Anandibai raised important questions about the parity of women’s views and opinions between public and private life. She encourages one to pick on the fragmented agency that women were allowed in societal structures and analyse the independent critical liberal thinking that women developed. It is only when one acknowledges and works directly towards decreasing the said parity can we have more liberal thinkers.
Even if Anandibai never got the chance to practice her education, she left a legacy to be remembered for eternity. Not only as a pioneer of women’s education but also as a developing, transitioning critical liberal thinker.
Dall, Caroline Healey. The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888. Print.
Joshi, Through a Changing Feminist Lens: Three Biographies of Anandibai. “Prachi Gurjarpadhye.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 49, No. 33 (August 16, 2014): 37-40. Print.
Kosambi, Meera. “Anandibai Joshee: Retrieving a Fragmented Feminist Image.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 49. (Dec. 7, 1996): 3189-3197. Print.