I still remember the last Lok Sabha elections, when everyone had gone out to cast a vote. And even though I wasn’t old enough to vote yet, my dear mother dragged me and my brother along when she went.
While she stood in line, my brother and I stood in wait. We had been waiting for a while when my mother’s turn came, and she stepped into the booth. At the same time, an old man, about two hundred years old (you know what I mean), and his wife who was similarly aged, walked out of the booth, in apparent argument. I thought it was a cute little fight, and I did not give the incident much thought. But later in the car, my mother told me – the old man had asked his wife to vote for a particular candidate he wanted her to vote for, which she had said she wouldn’t do, and that was what the fight had been about. It was a beautiful thing to have witnessed, where she stood up for herself in a public place like that, but the cuteness of this tiny incident gave way to a much larger issue.
In June 1921, a woman named Dorothy Graham, won a victory; a victory that today (99 years later) must go down in history (because it hasn’t yet, for some reason) as one of the most progressive incidents to have taken place in pre-independent India. She had decided to walk up to the Bombay and Madras parliaments and file motions allowing women in India to vote, a motion which both parliaments surprisingly passed (yes, it was surprising then). But the story wasn’t really that simple. In 1921, an act of such magnitude was considered almost unimaginable. But it was still possible because of the women at the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), an organisation begun just a few years before this historic date by the better known Annie Besant, and a couple of other women including Dorothy Graham (who played a super pivotal role).
Dorothy came to India, after being part of agitations as a very strong and radical feminist, managing to secure voting rights for the women of Ireland. But coming to Indian soil, she was quick to learn that it wouldn’t be as easy here as it was there. India has always been a very diverse nation. It is now, and it was then, and she was quick to spot this. The class differences, the caste system, the proud and imposing patriarchy, all of this told her that if she managed to get people legal rights, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that women would be quick to get out of the house and live with freedom. What that means is, if I had told a woman in 1915 that she could go vote for who would be in charge of her country, she would have probably laughed in my face and told me to go jump in a well. You had to tell her what the act of voting meant. You had to educate her.
And it was Dorothy’s idea to set out a path plan to the WIA’s original goal which was to get voting rights. She said in one of her speeches that politicians speaking of Mother India, were merely illusionary, until and unless they actually tried to do something to empower mothers. This is what the WIA did, on very matriarchal lines. They tried to educate women, empower them, and promoted proper hygiene, especially during pregnancy. They went all over the country, telling women how they needed to stand up for themselves. They eventually set wheels (of today’s feminist movement) into motion. But before they did that, they found all the parts, they set it all up together, and then built the entire car. And once that was done, after they ensured that women would actually go and do the things they’d been taught to do, they climbed up into the car, and stuck the key in the ignition.
In my head, Dorothy is a very largely unsung voice, in both the Indian Independence struggle, and in what the WIA actually managed to achieve. Within five years, they had expanded to forty-three branches, twenty centers, each with complete autonomy. Why the autonomy? Because if there were women living a particular way in one princely state in South India, there’d be women living up somewhere in another city in the North East, who lived a different way. Different levels of social class, different ways of dealing with things. This was the brilliance of the WIA, and every other woman’s organisation that followed. They taught the hecklers that these women of India wouldn’t just sit down and take it (many of these hecklers were women themselves – a certain woman parliamentarian from Britain is quoted to have said that it would be “dangerous” to even consider women voting). To get their freedom, they needed to be able to vote.
And so they did, and here we are. Even today, in Tamil Nadu, more women than men turn up to vote – which is a literal example of legal reform, becoming a cultural phenomena. Unfortunately, google Dorothy Graham today, and you’d be lucky to even find a single site that talks about her. Her husband has more internet presence than the woman herself, and this is why we thought it’s our responsibility to sing her name, and let it echo in the minds of our readers. Especially the women, who go out there every few months or even every four years, to tell the patriarchy to ‘go to hell’ by the simple act of voting.
That nameless woman at the polling booth I went to that warm afternoon, is a personification of everything Eyra is, and everything Eyra stands for. And she gets to be there because of far-sighted women like Dorothy, and organisations like the WIA.