The primary goals of most women’s associations were to improve women’s literacy and health by abolishing child marriage, enforced widowhood, and purdah. Imitating Ramabai’s Arya Mahila Samaj, elite women formed similar sectarian and local organizations. In 1886, Swarnakumari Debi (1856–1932), Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, started Sakhi Samiti (Women’s Friendship League)to spread knowledge among women and widows. In 1900 in Bombay, Parsi women founded the Stri Zarothoshti Mandal (Parsi Women’s Organization). Other welfare groups included the Young Women’s Christian Associationand, in 1915, the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam(Association for Muslim Women). Viresalingam Pantulu and his wife Rajya Lakshmi founded the Andhra Mahila Sabha (Andhra Women’s Club) in 1910 for girls’ education and widow remarriage. Between 1902 and 1912, Indians established many girls’ schools based on the Indo-centric curriculum advocated by Annie Besant in 1904, and girls’ school enrollment rose substantially. In Madras in 1906, elite Indian and European women started the nonsectarian Tamil Ma¯thar Sangam (Tamil Women’s Organization), which met in Kanchipuram in 1907 and 1914. In 1908 its women activists delivered papers at an all-India Ladies’ Congress (parishad), from which the secular Women’s Indian Association (WIA) drew its initial members, on 8 May 1917 in Adya¯r, Madras. Impressed by the Tamil Ma¯thar Sangam, the Irish suffragist Margaret Cousins proposed an all-Indian organization in 1915. The WIA was India’s first major multiethnic feminist organization. Its initial success was partly due to its effective use of the framework of the Theosophical Society whose head, Annie Besant, was chosen as the first WIA President. Cousins became the WIA’s first honorary secretary, a role shared with Dorothy Jinarajadasa, the Irish wife of a Sri Lankan Theosophist. As the “daughters of India,” they pledged to guide the nation, serve the poor, promote women’s education, abolish child marriage, raise the age of sexual consent to sixteen for women, and win female suffrage and the right to elected office. The WIA was the first organization to connect women’s social and sexual subjugation with patriarchy, poverty, and political disenfranchisement.
On 18 December 1917, Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) headed a WIA delegation to Secretary of State Edwin Montagu. They requested female suffrage on a par with men in expanded provincial legislatures after the 1919 Government of India Act. Although the franchise commission in London did not immediately sanction their request, WIA feminists won an appeal supported by C. Sankaran Nair, the Indian member of the commission, and Indians in the legislative councils. Provincial legislatures were instructed individually to decide upon female suffrage, so that a few women voted in Madras in 1921, in Bombay in 1922, and in other provinces after 1930. In 1927 Muthulakshmi Reddi was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly as India’s first woman legislator.
Two other important organizations were the National Council of Women in India (NCWI), founded in 1925, and the All India Women’s Conference for Educational Reform (AIWC), founded in 1927. The NCWI was headed by Mehribai Tata, the wife of a prominent Parsi industrialist. Despite its commitment to women’s issues, the NCWI’s dependence on the British colonial government, patronization of the poor, and conservative attitudes precluded its popularity. The AIWC began with a secular agenda on women’s education and marriage reform in Poona in 1927, led by the Rani of Sangli, the Begam of Bhopal, and the Maharani Chinmabai Saheb of Baroda. However, there were ideological and class differences over how to effect social changes amongst women in purdah. The AIWC has become less elitist and still functions. After 1920 the WIA and AIWC published their own journals, providing information on legislative bills, such as the one to abolish the dedication of de¯vada¯si dancers to temples, where they were reduced to prostitution. The system was legally abolished in 1928 due to the eloquence of Muthulakshmi Reddi. The WIA also campaigned against purdah and for the 1930 Sarda Act, raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to fourteen. The AIWC campaigned to raise school enrollment of girls, and literacy rates rose over the next decades; it was also instrumental in revamping family laws on divorce and property rights.