8 Indian Women Leaders Who Changed the Face of India

In today’s politically charged atmosphere, representation matters. Yet, as we know, politics is largely a male-dominated sphere. Despite there being a one-third seat reservation for women, equality is still not a reality. Yet these eight incredible Indian women are exemplars of strength, intelligence, and resilience. They have risen to the top in their fields and are not only reminders of the legacy that they leave behind, but also beacons of hope for future generations.


1. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968)

Dr. Reddy was one of the most multifaceted women of her time. Apart from being one of the first female doctors of the country, and the first woman to be elected as alderman of the Madras Corporation, she was also the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council. She was concerned about the plight of women and endeavored to liberate them. In this regard, she introduced a bill in the Madras Legislative Council on the “prevention of the dedication of women in Hindu temples” in the Madras Presidency. This was the bill that became the Devadasi Abolition Act, a landmark in the protection of women, especially those of the subaltern. Despite facing multiple hurdles on the path of making this bill an act, Dr. Reddy remained passionate about her stance and persevered, which led her to earn several laurels from progressive intellectuals at the time, including Mahatma Gandhi.


2. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (1889-1964)

Despite having all the luxuries a royal title can offer, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was not a complacent woman. She was a freedom fighter and an ardent supporter of women’s rights. She co-founded the All India Women's Conference in 1927 and became president of the organization in 1933. She was one of the first to speak out against child marriage and the purdah system for women.

She became the first woman to hold Cabinet rank in India when she took charge of the Ministry of Health during Nehru's tenure. She was also one of two Indian Christians in the Cabinet. In 1950, she was elected as the president of the World Health Assembly, the first woman to hold this position. She molded a path for many other women to excel in this field.


3. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990)

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the first Indian woman to hold a Cabinet post. She served as the president of the Indian National Congress twice. She was also India’s ambassador to Russia during the late forties, and the governor of Maharashtra later. Pandit is best known for being the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly. As politics is not known for giving women a platform, in this light Dr. Lakshmi helped break the bonds and shape the path for many others.


4. Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)

This list would be incomplete without having India’s first, and to-date only, female prime minister. As controversial her actions and stances may have been, there is no denying the impact she left on Indian politics. Her role stands out during the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Emergency, as does her decisiveness during Operation Blue Star. Going from the position of ‘Goongi Gudia’ to leader of parliament is a remarkable path and one that is inspirational for all.

In 1999, Indira Gandhi was named “Woman of the Millennium” in an online poll organized by the BBC.


5. Sushma Swaraj (b. 1952)

An Indian politician, former Supreme Court lawyer and the current minister of External Affairs of India, Sushma Swaraj has held many positions of high acclaim. She has many firsts to her credit: BJPs first female chief minister, Union Cabinet minister, general secretary, spokesperson, leader of Opposition and minister of External Affairs. She is the Indian Parliament's first and only female MP honoured with the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award. Moreover, being the youngest Indian cabinet minister, at the age of 25, she remains an inspiration for all young female aspirants in the field of politics.

She was called India's “best-loved politician” by the Wall Street Journal.


6. Sarojini Naidu (1879 –1949)

Sarojini Naidu was an activist and a poet. She was also the first governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh for two years, pre-independence, and was also the first female governor of an Indian state, post-independence. Adding to that, she was the first Indian woman to become the president of the Indian National Congress, which was unheard of at that time. She was also one of the only women to take part in the Satyagraha movement and participated in the Round Table Conference with Mahatma Gandhi. She is an exemplar of women achieving great heights across multiple fields and achieving what women set their mind to.


7. Irom Chanu Sharmila (b. 1972)

Also known as the 'Iron Lady', Irom Sharmila is a civil rights activist, political activist, and poet. From very early on in her life, she was involved in local peace movements against human right abuses in Manipur. However, after the atrocious Malom Massacre (November 2000) which brought to the forefront the unchecked power of the Indian Paramilitary Forces in the state, she began a sixteen-year hunger strike which she ended in August 2016. For this great resilience, she has been called the world's “longest hunger striker.” 

She has been instrumental in leading the fight against repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which would curb the power and corruption of the armed forces. Despite facing several hurdles, such as being placed in judicial custody and strike-related health issues, her strength and her dedication cuts across like a flame, making the world a safer place.

On International Women’s Day (2014), she was voted the top woman icon of India by MSN Poll.


8. Jayaram Jayalalithaa (1948-2016)

Jayalalithaa was an Indian actress and politician who served six terms as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for over fourteen years between 1991 and 2016. As the general secretary of the AIADMK, she was known for fostering a cult personality of 'Amma' amongst her followers. As the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, she was known for her work ethic and centralizing state power amongst a syndicate of ministers. In terms of policies, she was known for the successful cradle-baby scheme, which enabled mothers to anonymously offer their newborns for adoption. In 2011, her government received attention for its extensive social welfare agenda, which included several subsidized 'Amma'-branded goods such as canteens, bottled water, and salt. The biggest indicator of the impact that she has left on the Indian political structure was the headlines that emerged when news spread of her cardiac arrest–it was as if this vacuum had emerged and Indian politics seem to have halted.


Hopefully, this list inspired you, not necessarily to idealize the people talked about, but their qualities, skill points and what they stand for. Let us all continue to fight the good fight and make sure our voices are heard for the greater political good.


Edited by Rangoli Gupta

Images curated by Roshani Jain and Viraj Malani