Indian women are known for their courage, patience, resilience and fortitude. And today, they ate striding towards their chosen life paths and ambitions. But it wasn’t always like that. There have been women in the past who have broken barriers to be the first ones in their chosen fields. They had to break the mould, the stereotype in a typical patriarchal society, but they did it. They took that step and paved the way for others to follow. It was their initiative and their courage which is carrying us, modern women, forward.
We owe them big time!
Here we have compiled a list of 50 famous women in India who were the first in their field.
1. Annie Besant – First Indian Woman Leader of the Indian National Congress
Annie Besant was a well-known theosophist, feminine activist, author and orator. She has the distinction of being the first head of a major political organization, becoming the first woman president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. She founded the Central Hindu College in Varanasi in 1898, later known as the Banaras Hindu University.
2. Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur – First Woman Health Minister of India
Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was a Gandhian and a freedom fighter who became India’s first health minister and the first woman to hold a government position after 1947.
3. Sarojini Naidu – First Indian Woman Governor
Sarojini Naidu, also known as the nightingale of India, became the first woman governor of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) following the country’s independence. She held the position until she died in 1949.
4. Indira Gandhi – First Woman Prime Minister of India
Indira Gandhi became India’s first woman Prime Minister in 1966, serving four terms. She was often referred to as the first woman in a man’s world.
5. Pratibha Patil – First Woman President of India
Pratibha Devisingh Patil was the first ever woman President of the country. She created history when she took over as President on July 25, 2007. Before that, she was also the first woman to serve as Governor of Rajasthan, holding the position from 2004 to 2007.
6. Vijaylakshmi Pandit – First Indian Woman to hold a Cabinet Position
Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the first Indian woman to occupy a cabinet position in pre-independence India. She became the Minister for Local Self-Government and Public Health in 1937. She is also the first woman to be elected President of the United Nations General Assembly.
7. Meira Kumar – First Woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha
Meira Kumar holds the distinction of being chosen as the first-ever female Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 2009, a position she held until 2014. She is a diplomat-turned-politician who switched from being a foreign service officer to a five-term MP and then a Cabinet Minister.
8. V.S. Ramadevi – First Woman Chief Election Commissioner
V.S. Ramadevi has many firsts to her credit. She was appointed as the country’s 9th Chief Election Commissioner in 1990. She was the first woman to hold that position, and so far, she is the only one. She was also the first and only woman to serve as the Secretary-General of the Rajya Sabha from 1993 to 1997. She was also the first female governor of the State of Karnataka.
9. Sucheta Kriplani – First Woman Chief Minister of a State
Sucheta Kriplani became the fourth Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh on October 2, 1963, making her the first woman to hold the office in any Indian State.
10. Mayawati – First Woman Dalit Chief Minister of India
Mayawati made history when she became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995. She was the first Dalit woman to assume that position.
Media and Films
11. Vidya Munshi – First Woman Journalist of India
Vidya Munshi is India’s first female journalist who worked for several publications, including Russy Karanjia’s Blitz, for ten years.
12. Homai Vyarawalla – India’s first Woman Photojournalist
Homai Vyarawalla, often known as Dalda 13, was the first woman photojournalist of India.
13. Pratima Puri – First Female Television Newsreader of India
Pratima Puri became India’s first television newsreader when she was featured on the Doordarshan 5-minute news program in 1965.
14. Durgabai Kamat – First Actress of India
Durgabai Kamat, a Marathi stage actress, became India’s first female film actress. She appeared in Dadasaheb Phalke’s second film Mohini Bhasmasur.
15. Fatima Begum- First Woman Director of India
Fatima Begum established her production firm, Fatma Films, in 1926 and was the first woman director in Indian cinema when she wrote and directed Bulbul-e-Paristan in 1926.
16. Reita Faria – First Indian Miss World
Reita Faria Powel, an Indian model, doctor and beauty queen, was the first woman from India to be crowned Miss World in 1966.
17. Sushmita Sen -First Indian Miss Universe
Sushmita Sen was only 18 when she became the first Indian Miss Universe in 1994 and went on to join the film industry.
18. Bachendri Pal – First Indian Woman to climb Mount Everest
Bachendri Pal made history by becoming the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest in 1984. After that, she led several expeditions with an all-female team in 1993, 1994 and 1997.
19. Sania Mirza – First Indian Woman to Win the Woman’s Tennis Association Title
Sania Mirza was the first Indian woman to win the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title for the first time in 2005. She became the first Indian woman to reach the top of the WTA doubles rankings later that year.
20. Saina Nehwal – First Indian Woman Badminton Player to Win an Olympic Medal
Saina Nehwal was the first Indian woman to win a medal in badminton at the 2012 Olympic Games, also becoming the first Indian to reach the top of the world rankings later that year.
21. Arti Saha – First Indian Woman to Swim across the English Channel
Arati Saha became the first Indian and Asian woman to swim across the English Channel in 1959. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1960, making her the first female athlete to get the honour.
22. Mary Kom – First Indian Female Boxer to Win a Title
Mary Kom is the first and only Indian woman boxer to have won a medal in each of the Seven World Championships.
23. Kamaljit Sandhu – First Indian Woman to Win a Medal at Asian Games
Kamaljit Sandhu became the first Indian woman athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Asian Games when she ran 400m in 57.3 seconds in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games. In 1971, she was awarded the Padma Shri award.
24. Karnam Malleswari – First Indian Woman to Win an Olympic Medal
Karnam Malleswari made history at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 by becoming the first Indian woman weightlifter to win an Olympic medal. Her remarkable achievement earned her a household name The Iron Lady. She is the only Indian women weightlifter to have won an Olympic medal.
25. Vrinda Rathi – First Woman Umpire in Cricket
Vrinda Rathi is the first woman to be an umpire for a cricket match, presiding over a T20 match during the T20 Mumbai League.
26. Aditi Ashok – First Indian Woman Golfer to win Ladies European Tour
Aditi was only 18 when she won her first professional tournament at the Hero Women’s Indian Open at Gurgaon, becoming the first Indian woman to claim a victory on the Ladies European Tour.
27. Kalpana Chawla – First Indian Woman to Go into Space
Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian woman to enter Space aboard the space shuttle Columbia which crashed while returning to Earth after completing its mission in Space.
28. A Lalitha – First Indian Woman Engineer
Lalitha was the sole female student in an all-male College of Engineering, where her father was a professor. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 1943, making her India’s first female engineer.
29. Kamala Sohoni – First Indian Woman to Earn a PhD
Kamala Sohoni, a biochemist from India, was the first Indian woman to receive a PhD in a scientific field in 1936 and got her degree from the prestigious Cambridge University.
30. Dr Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi
Dr Joshi was the first Indian woman to study and graduate with a two-year degree in Western Medicine from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She got her degree in 1886.
31. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw – First Indian Woman Businessperson
Kiran Mazumdar -Shaw, founder and chairperson of Biocon Limited, is India’s first female businesswoman, technocrat and innovator.
32. Indra Nooyi – First Indian Woman CEO of Pepsico
When Indra Nooyi was named CEO of Pepsico in 2006, not only was she the first Indian woman but the first woman ever to be made the CEO in the company’s 44-year history. She was bestowed with the Padma Bhushan by the Indian government in 2007. The ICC Board also named her the organization’s first independent female director.
33. Anna Chandy – First Female Judge of India
Known as a first-generation feminist, Justice Anna Chandy was India’s first woman judge and the country’s first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She was sworn in as a judge of the Kerala High Court on February 9, 1959, and served in that position for over eight years till April 5, 1967.
34. Cornelia Sorabjee – First Woman Advocate of India
Cornelia Sorabji was a prolific writer, a barrister and a social reformer. She graduated from Oxford with a law degree and became India’s first female lawyer.
35. Justice Leila Seth – First Indian Woman Chief Justice of a State High Court
On August 5, 1991, Justice Leila Seth became the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court and the first woman Chief Justice of a State High Court. She was also a member of the Justice Verma committee’s three-person panel, formed in the aftermath of the infamous Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi in 2012.
36. Kiran Bedi – First Female IPS Officer
Kiran Bedi, who joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1972, was the country’s first female police officer. In addition, Kiran Bedi was the first woman appointed as a United Nations Civil Police adviser in 2003.
37. Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya – First Woman Director General of Police
Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer from the 1973 batch, was the country’s second woman police officer. When she was appointed as the DGP of Uttarakhand in 2004, she made history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of Director General of Police.
38. Sarla Thukral – First Indian Woman to Fly an Aircraft
As the saree-clad Sarla Thukral climbed up to the plane’s cockpit, she had no idea that she was making history by becoming the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft.
Sarla Thukral got her pilot’s license when she was just 21 years old when her father-in-law enrolled her in a local flying school. She became the first woman pilot to receive an ‘A’ license after completing 1,000 hours of flight time. She was also the first Indian woman to obtain an airmail pilot’s certificate.
39. Durga Banerjee – First Indian Female Pilot
When Durga first applied for a position as a commercial pilot with the then Central Aviation Ministry, she was offered the position of a flight attendant. But standing firm on her goal of becoming a pilot, she was successful in becoming one. She went on to become the first female Indian pilot and captain of Indian Airlines in the year 1956, and was also the first woman to fly the Tornado A-200 aircraft.
40. Prem Mathur – First Indian Woman Commercial Pilot
Eight airlines turned Prem Mathur down when she tried to be a pilot before landing a job with Deccan Airways in Hyderabad in 1947. At 38, she was offered the job and became the first Indian woman to fly a commercial plane.
41. Priya Jhingan – First Lady Cadet to Join the Indian Army
Priya Jhingan, a law graduate, decided to switch gears when she decided to join the Indian Army. She was enlisted as Cadet 001, the first female cadet in the Indian Army, along with 25 other women who all became trailblazers in the armed forces.
42. Bhavna Kanth – First Indian Woman Fighter Pilot
In 2016 the Defence Ministry allowed women pilots to join the Air Force as fighter pilots. Bhawna Kanth registered for the same, and by doing that, she became the first female fighter pilot in India in 2019.
43. Harita Kaur Deol – First Indian Pilot to Fly Solo
Until 1992 the IAF did not allow its female pilots to fly solo. Harita Deol was only 22 when she flew alone in an Avro HS-748 on September 2, 1994, becoming the Indian Air Force’s first female solo pilot.
44. Padma Banopadhyay – India’s First Woman Air Marshal
Padma Bandopadhyay joined the Indian Air Force in 1968. A renowned former Indian Air Force flight surgeon, Padma Bandopadhyay, was the first woman in the IAF to be promoted to Air Marshal.
Awards and Honours
45. Mother Teresa – First Indian Noble Peace Prize winner
Mother Teresa was the first Indian woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which she received in 1979. Mother Teresa, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, dedicated her life to social work.
46. Arundhati Roy – First Indian to win the Booker Prize
When in 1997, Arundhati Roy was awarded the Booker Prize for her book The God of Small Things, she was the first Indian woman and the first Indian to be conferred with that honour.
47. Amrita Pritam – First Woman to win the Sahitya Academy Award
Amrita Pritam, a Punjabi writer and poet, was the first woman to win the National Sahitya Akademi Award for her book Sunehadey in 1956. In 1982, she was awarded the Bhartiya Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honour, for Kagaj te Canvas
48. Steffi D’ Souza – First Indian Woman to Get the Arjuna Award
Steffi D’Souza, a member of India’s first International women’s hockey squad, competed in London in 1953 and became the captain in 1961. She was awarded the Arjuna Award for Athletics in 1963, making her the first Indian woman to be conferred with that award.
49. C.B.Muthamma – First woman IFS officer Ambassador in India
Chonira Belliappa Muthamma joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1949. She was also the first woman to pass the Indian Civil Services tests, making her the country’s first female IFS Officer and Ambassador. She was a courageous woman who stood her ground in the face of gender bigotry.
50. Surekha Yadav – First Woman Train Driver
Until 1988 Indian Railways was known to be male-dominated, but Surekha broke the mould. She became the first woman passenger train driver in India and Asia, and opened the doors for other women to follow her.
These courageous Indian women who took the first step into the many male bastions took the initiative and inspired other women to do the same. They paved the way for them by shaking the foundation of male dominance and prominence.