51 of the Greatest Women in India’s History

Do you know who was the first female pilot from India? Or the first female freedom fighter? Have you heard about brave women like Chand Bibi and Obavva? In modern India, women have held high offices including that of the President and Prime Minister. Not only did these women make an impact on India, but they are also some of the most influential women in history.

Find out more about these extraordinary women here. I have arranged the list alphabetically.

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I have included more than 50 women on this list, but I wanted to highlight five whose achievements changed the course of history.

  1. Anandi Gopal Joshi: She was the first female doctor in India and the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States.
  2. Indira Gandhi: She was the first and only woman to be the Prime Minister of India.
  3. Justice Anna Chandy: She was the first female judge in India.
  4. Kalpana Chawla: She was the first Indian woman in space and died tragically in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
  5. Mother Teresa: She dedicated her life to helping the poor and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
  • Major achievements: Queen of Malwa; philosopher queen; ideal ruler
  • Why I included her on this list: After the death of her husband Khanderao Holkar, Ahilyabai Holkar became the queen of Malwa (present-day Malwa falls into western Madhya Pradesh and southeastern Rajasthan). Under her, the capital of the kingdom was Maheshwar, which is now a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Her reign lasted for 30 years and she ruled with the utmost compassion and pride. During her time, the region prospered and scaled many new heights. She is often cited as the “philosopher queen” and an “absolute ideal ruler.” She even personally led armies into battle. As a tribute, Indore’s domestic airport and university are named after her.
  • Major accomplishments: Known for her efforts in the advancement of women’s education and her contribution towards the alleviation of the condition of widows
  • Why I included her on this list: Abala Bose was an early feminist and frequently wrote about why women needed more education and stressed that women’s minds were just as important as men’s. Later in her life, she set up the Nari Shiksha Samiti, a nonprofit whose mission was to educate girls and women. She also opened a home for widows and a rehabilitation center for women.
  • Major achievement: Pioneer of modern Indian art
  • Why I included her on this list: Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 and started painting at the age of eight. She is one of the pioneers of modern Indian art and was known as India’s Frida Kahlo. She died at the early age of 28, but her artwork is still praised and sold for top dollar. She received recognition with her oil painting named Young Girls in 1932.
  • Major achievements: First female doctor in India and the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States
  • Why I included her on this list: Anandi died at a tender age of just 21 (just before her 22nd birthday). But before that, she became the first female physician in 1887. Her condition was deteriorating while she was in the second year of studies. Yet, she still completed her studies and returned to India. She was later diagnosed with tuberculosis, which ultimately caused her death. She opened the gates for many young Indian women who wanted to do more than devote their life to household chores.
  • Major achievement: Trailblazer in women’s labour rights
  • Why I included her on this list: Anasuya Sarabhai completed her higher education at the London School of Economics. She could have settled in any foreign country and led a life of comfort. But she chose India where she helped women by advocating for labour rights. She founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, India’s oldest union of textile workers, in 1920, becoming the first female leader of a trade union in India. On her 132nd birthday, Google India celebrated with a doodle remembering her achievements.
  • Major achievements: First Indian and Asian woman to swim across the English Channel in 1959; first female sportsperson to be awarded Padma Shri—the fourth highest civilian award in India—in 1960
  • Why I included her on this list: She completed this feat in 14 hours and 20 minutes in 1959. at the age of 19. The distance across the Channel is approximately 33 kilometers. Let that sink in!
  • Major achievements: Female leader of the Quit India Movement and a Bharat Ratna recipient.
  • Why I included her on this list: She was an active freedom fighter who came into prominence during the Quit India movement in 1942. Her hoisting the flag during the movement at the August Kranti Maidan brought her to the forefront. She became Delhi’s first mayor in 1958. Later, she became the third female recipient of Bharat Ratna, receiving it posthumously in 1997.
  • Major achievements: First female scientist in India; conducted research in organic chemistry and medicinal plants
  • Why I included her on this list: Asima Chatterjee became the first female scientist in India when she received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She devoted her time extensively to developing anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. She also wrote numerous research papers illustrating the medicinal properties of plants. Google honored her in 2017 on what would have been her 100th birthday with a doodle.
  • Major achievements: Mallika-e-Ghazal, Padma Bhushan recipient
  • Why I included her on this list: Begum Akhtar is known as “Queen of Ghazals” in Indian classical singing circles. Most famous for ghazals, she also composed them. She is also a Padma Bhushan recipient. Her death was rather tragic. During one of the performances in Kerala, she raised the pitch of her voice as she felt that her singing had not been as good as she had wanted it to be and felt unwell. The stress she put on herself under resulted in her falling ill, and she was rushed to the hospital. Just days later, she took her last breath on October, 30th, 1974.
  • Major achievements: Took control of Awadh after he husband was exiled; rebelled against the British East India Company during the Indian Mutiny of 1857
  • Why I included her on this list: Mahal was shrewd and took charge of the state of affairs of Awadh after her husband was exiled to Calcutta. She and a band of supporters rebelled against the Britsh in 1857, and she was able to take control of Lucknow as well. She had planned for her son to take over Awadh, but she had to abandon those plans when the British recaptured Lucknow. She retreated to Nepal where she died in 1879.
  • Major achievements: First female commercial pilot in India; winner of the National Air Race; first British-Indian woman pilot license holder
  • Why I included her on this list: Captain Mathur was rejected by eight private airlines just because she was a woman. However, she finally landed a job at Deccan Airways. Inthe 1940s, most women were not even allowed to venture out of their home. The patriarchal system of our society didn’t help. And then there were women like Prem Mathur who were committed to making a positive change.
  • Major achievement: Defended Ahmednagar against Mughal emperor Akbar
  • Why I included her on this list: One of the bravest women of her times, she successfully defended her throne when Akbar’s forces invaded. In fact, she defended her reign twice. She was unfortunately killed in the third battle by her own companions as a rumors spread that she was joining hands with the Mughals.
  • Major achievement: One of the first two female graduates of the British Empire in 1882 along with Kadambini Ganguly
  • Why I included her on this list: Now, this may not feel like a significant thing. But mind you, they achieved this at a time when the English ruled. Though, the English were never against women’s education.
  • Major achievements: First female advocate in India; first woman to study law at Oxford University
  • Why I included her on this list: Cornelia Sorabji was admitted to Oxford in 1892, a milestone that predates the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Upon returning India, she helped many women with legal matters. It’s been discovered that she helped nearly 600 clients over the course of her career, which is no small feat given the obstacles he had to overcome.
  • Major achievement: One of the first practicing women doctors in India; part of a landmark case that ultimately resulted in the enactment of the Age of Consent Act in 1891
  • Why I included her on this list: Along with Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, Dr. Rakhmabai was one of the first women to practice medicine in India after receiving her degree from the London School of Medicine for Women. She was also part of a high-profile court case after refusing to move in with her future husband’s family at the tender age of 12 (her step-father supported her decision). The judge ruled in favor of her prospective husband, but she still refused. Her defiance brought about a discussion of the practice of child brides and consent. In 1891, legislation was enacted that changed the age of consent from 10 to 12 years across British India. Dr. Rakhmabai practiced medicine until her retirement in 1929.
  • Major achievements: Participated in an armed revolution against the British; famous for escaping with Bhagat Singh after Saunder’s killing
  • Why I included her on this list: As I write this, I am getting the shivers just thinking of her bravado. It reminds me of the movie Rang De Basanti in which Soha Ali Khan did justice to her character. Durga Bhabhi was one of just a few women who participated in an armed revolution against the British.
  • Major achievements: First and only female Prime Minister of India; first female recipient of the Bharat Ratna award
  • Why I Included her on this list: Indira Gandhi served as Prime Minister from 1966-1977. She was a strong-willed, disciplined, and ruthless leader when it came to defending Indian interests. My father used to be a big fan of hers and collected various articles from newspapers and magazines. I too admire her. In my opinion, she is the most successful prime minister of India. Unfortunately, she was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, in response to her storming of the Golden Temple.
  • Major achievements: Recipient of the Ghalib award, Filmfare award (best story), and Padma Shri
  • Why I included her on this list: Ismat Chugthai is considered the first Urdu writer who highlighted and wrote on female sexuality, femininity, and women rights. After tasting success in the literature world, she also wrote stories for mainstream cinema. Some of her notable films include Ziddi (1948), Aarzoo (1950), and Garam Hawa (1973).
  • Major Achievements: conducted research on sugarcane and eggplants (brinjal); first Indian woman with a Ph.D. in botany
  • Why I included her on this list: The sugarcane juice that you had the other day might have been cultivated from the research findings of this lady. In India, she created a new kind of sugarcane which could grow well within the country, and which was considered good enough to put India on the sugarcane map. So next next time you quench your thirst with a glass of sugarcane juice, think of her.
  • Major achievements: Ideal mother; Rajmata
  • Why I included her on this list: There are many stories of Jijabai and her upbringing of Shivaji, founder of Maratha Empire. It is her teachings that made Shivaji a warrior. Jijamata fostered Shivaji with faith, courage, and valor.
  • Major achievements: First female judge in India; founded a magazine named Shrimati, which aimed to promote the cause of women’s rights
  • Why I included her on this list: She achieved this feat in the pre-independence era in 1937. After independence, in 1948, she became a district court judge. After serving 11 years at that position, in 1959, she was promoted to the high court in Kerala. She wrote an autobiography, Atmakatha, that discussed her achievements and inspired future generations.
  • Major achievements: Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali), Padma Vibhushan recipient
  • Why I included her on this list: Apart from making a name for herself with short stories, poetry, novels, etc., she was also a vocal advocate for the rights of tribal people. Her major works include Hazar Churashir Maa and Aranyer Adhikar.
  • Major achievement: First Indian woman in space
  • Why I included her on this list: I remember when Kalpana made her way onto the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 since it was a big moment in India’s history. At school, one of our assignments was to collect newspaper cutouts and write an essay on her. She, unfortunately, passed away in the infamous Columbia disaster in 2003 at the early age of 42. On that mission, she worked as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator.
  • Major achievements: Padma Vibhushan recipient, received the Ramon Magsaysay award; first female candidate to run for a Legislative seat in India
  • Why I included her on this list: Kamaladevi was a leader when it came to uplifting women. She did extensive work for women’s rights and participated in the independence movement. Several cultural institutions in India today exist because of her vision, including the National School of Drama, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and the Crafts Council of India.
  • Major achievements: Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award; widely read columnist
  • Why I included her on this list: She moved to the limelight when she got her autobiography published. The controversial nature of the book worked to her advantage. Many of her columns in major newspapers were widely circulated. She again courted controversy when she converted to Islam at the age of 65 after criticising Hinduism.
  • Major achievements: Female warrior and patriot; led an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in 1824
  • Why I included her on this list: When the British started annexing the many princely states of India, she was one of the first people who resisted it. She defended her state for quite some time but, unfortunately, troops could not sustain the continued assault. Eventually, she was captured and imprisoned until her death.
  • Major achievements: Senior leader in the Indian National Army; Padma Vibhushan recipient
  • Why I included her on this list: I’m sure you’ve seen photos of Subhash Chandra Bose and his army, which will almost include this young lady as she was Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan. Lakshmi had many roles in her life, including a doctor, revolutionary, and political candidate (she ran for President in 2002 but lost).
  • Major achievements: Most-Awarded Indian singer; Bharat Ratna recipient; Legion of Honor recipient
  • Why I included her on this list: She is known all over the world for her melodious voice. Her career began in 1942 and has spanned over six and a half decades. There has never been a singer like her and never will be. She has sung thousands of songs and her versatility in singing is unquestioned.
  • Major achievement: Prominent personality in India’s first war of Independence (1857)
  • Why I included her on this list: She formed a volunteer army consisting not just of men, but also women. Her sacrifices made her an icon of the Indian Independence Movement. Read the poem below that captures the essence of her courage. Note that this is just an excerpt.
  • Major achievement: First female poet to have a diwan of her work, a compilation of Urdu Ghazals named Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa, published posthumously
  • Why I included her on this list: Mah Laqa Chanda was one of the most influential women during her time and was an advisor to the royal court. In fact, she was the only woman to be given recognition publicly in Hyderabad State. Her work influenced many generations that came after her.
  • Major achievements: Known as the Queen of Music; the second woman to receive Bharat Ratna; first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize
  • Why I included her on this list: She dedicated her life to classical singing that showed the world the tradition of India. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru regarded her as the “Queen of Music” after seeing her perform live.
  • Major achievement: Prominent leader in the independence struggle
  • Why I included her on this list: Madam Cama was fierce in her approach and never batted an eye when it came to going the extra mile—so much so that she contracted the plague while helping other patients. Fortunately, she survived and continued her nationalistic activities until her death in 1936.
  • Major achievement: Indian freedom fighter
  • Why I included her on this list: The history books that you studied in school do not mention her, but until her last breath, she participated in various movements organized for attaining complete freedom. She, unfortunately, was shot dead by the British Indian police in 1942. She was affectionately known as Gandhiburi, which is Bengali for old lady Gandhi.

  • Major achievements: Known for her extensive work for the poor; Bharat Ratna recipient; first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979
  • Why I included her on this list: She dedicated her life to working for the poor people of India. She received many awards in India and elsewhere in the world. Through her Missionary of Charities organization, she personally cared for thousands of sick and dying people in Calcutta. She also worked tirelessly 24/7 to eradicate poverty and improve lives around the world. She is frequently featured on any list of “women who changed the world.”
  • Major achievements: First female legislator in India; Padma Bhushan recipient; first female student to be admitted to a men’s college; first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital
  • Why I included her on this list: The achievements above don’t even cover all of the things Muthulakshmi Reddi accomplished during her lifetime. She was also a big activist and social reformer—she was one of the women pioneers who stood for the cause of liberating India from the British. And in 1954, she opened a hospital for cancer patients, Adyar Cancer Institute—it was only the second of its kind in India and is still a world-renowned institution today.
  • Major achievement: Fought the troops of Hyder Ali (Sultan of Mysore) all alone
  • Why I included her on this list: The story of her single-handedly killing forces of Hyder Ali is now a part of the folklore. She killed Hyder Ali’s army with a pestle when she saw them, effectively saving Chitradurga Fort from getting captured.
  • Major achievements: Known as Pandita for her knowledge of Sanskrit at an early age; Saravasti recipient for her scholarly work by Calcutta University
  • Why I included her on this list: In addition to her achievements above, she also participated in the freedom movement but was largely known for her advocacy of women’s rights, especially in education and politics.
  • Major achievements: Regarded as the first female freedom fighter of India; fearless queen

  • Why I included her on this list: Before the British came to set East India company, it was the Portuguese who as well came to capture several parts of India. Queen Abakka defended her kingdom, Ullal, for more than 40 years. She was one of the earliest Indians to fight the colonial powers.
  • Major achievement: Participated in the 1857 revolt; Lodhi queen
  • Why I included her on this list: Avantibai became the queen when her husband fell ill. But she was more than capable of handling the affairs. She is often compared to Rani of Jhansi and Kittur Chenamma. She fought the British during the 1857 uprising for Independence.
  • Major achievement: Queen of Gondwana
  • Why I included her on this list: After her husband died, Rani Durgavati took control of Gondwana since her son was just five years old at the time. She fought off many attacks during her reign, but she was unable to defend her kingdom from the invasion of the Mughal forces. Rather than admit defeat, she killed herself on June 24, 1564. The day is known today as Balidan Diwas. In 1983, the University of Jabalpur was renamed as Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya in her memory.
  • Major achievement: Defended Rajput pride by self-immolation when Alauddin Khalji wanted to capture her
  • Why I included her on this list: She is technically not Indian since she was born in Sri Lanka. However, in her time, it was all Hindustan so she was a Hindustani, of course. There are so many stories of her beauty and courage that you could write a book.
  • Major achievement: Historically known as Maharaja, though she was a queen
  • Why I included her on this list: As one of the most powerful female rulers of the Kakatiya dynasty, she saved her kingdom from many invasion attempts. She was one of the very few women to rule as monarchs in India and promoted herself as a male ruler in order to do so. History remembers her with exceptional qualities with no one coming close to her personality.
  • Major achievement: First and only female ruler of India
  • Why I included her on this list: Some may disagree that she was the only female ruler of India, but she undoubtedly was the first. She ruled the Delhi Sultanate for a short period of four years. Her rule of law was overturned when she fell in love with Yakut (a slave in her kingdom). Her death still remains shrouded in mystery. There are claims of at least three places of her burial in Kaithal, Tonk, and Delhi.
  • Major achievements: Revived Bharatnatyam; Padma Bhushan recipient; the first woman to be nominated in Rajya Sabha
  • Why I included her on this list: She is also featured in the list of the top 100 people who shaped India. Rukmini Devi also devoted time towards animal welfare and rights. She was once offered the post of President of India by Morarji Desai, but she chose dance over the highest office in India.
  • Major achievements: The first woman to get her pilot license and clock more than 1000 hours of flying
  • Why I included her on this list: Sarla Thakral was only 21 years old when she received her license to fly an aircraft. She was working towards getting licensed when her husband died in a plane crash. Later in life, she became a painter and designed clothes, jewelry, etc.
  • Major achievements: Started the first girl’s school with her husband; opened a care center for pregnant rape victims
  • Why I included her on this list: Married at the age of nine, Savitri saw firsthand the plight of girls her age. This inspired her to start the first all women’s school in 1848. She was also the first teacher at the school. She also opened a care center named Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha for pregnant rape victims and helped to deliver their children. She brought about many social reforms and changed the mindsets of many. The University of Pune is renamed after her—it’s now known as Savitribai Phule Pune University.
  • Major achievement: Empress of Dance (Nritya Samragni); Kathak queen
  • Description: She propagated the Kathak style of dancing and did shows all around the world. She also appeared in numerous movies as a dancer, including Mother India, Usha Haran, and Roti. However, she stopped performing in movies in 1957, saying they were adversely affecting her study in kathak On her 97th birthday, Google India dedicated its homepage by showing a doodle on her.
  • Major achievements: Known as the “The Nightingale of India;” second Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and the first to be appointed an Indian state governor
  • Why I included her on this list: Sarojini Naidu, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, founded the Women’s India Association in 1917. Having been the President of Indian National Congress in 1925, she participated in the freedom struggle. Two years before her death, India finally gained its independence as a sovereign nation, becoming the largest democracy in the world. She is also remembered for her books, including The Broken Wing and The Gift of India.
  • Major achievement: Defended the Maratha empire against the Mughals
  • Why I included her on this list: Tarabai led her army and successfully defended it against foreign powers. The widowed queen was brought to the forefront when her husband Rajaram Bhosle died. She was a genius strategist with immense political acumen.
  • Major achievements: Padma Vibhushan and host of the secret Congress Radio during Quit India movement.
  • Why I included her on this list: She participated in the independence struggle and was jailed for six months for hosting a secret radio show, which provided information to various leaders who fought against the British. After independence, she became a lecturer at the University of Bombay. Usha Mehta advocated Gandhi’s philosophy and teachings throughout her life.
  • Major achievement: First South Indian queen to fight against the East India Company of British
  • Why I included her on this list: Aptly nicknamed Veeramangai—which translates into a brave woman—she successfully fought British by forming an alliance with nearby kings of princely states. Legend has it that the British never came back to conquer her kingdom while she ruled.

I did extensive research to write this article. Hope you like it and have discovered many new great personalities and are inspired by them.