In 1916, India’s first women’s university was established with only five women in the first graduating class. Today, this university has over 70,000 students across India with 26 colleges, 3 secondary schools for girls and 38 university departments, including art, management, technology, home science, and humanities.
Educator and social reformer, Dhondo Keshav Karve lead this revolutionary idea of an all-female university in 1914 when he secured a 15 lakh rupees (roughly $3M of that time) donation from industrialist and philanthropist, Vithaldas Thackersay of Mumbai. Thackersay wanted the university to be named after his mother, and so, Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersay Women’s University (SNDT) was founded.
Karve, was influenced by the reform movements during British occupied India and the people leading them. He focused his work on fighting for women’s rights and lifting the status of women through education, specifically widows. During these times, widows were viewed as untouchable and were forced to clothe in simple white saris and restrict themselves from being a contributing part of society.
In an effort to put an end to cultural stigma, after losing his wife, in 1893, Karve remarried a widow who had lost her husband in (one she married at only the age of 8). It was also this year that he established the Widow Re-marriage Association and began speaking out about regressive practices against widows and other castes that were categorized as untouchable.
Despite being criticized and abused by society for his movement, Dhondo Keshav Karve, continued his work. In 1895, he created the Hindu Widows Home Association, which helped widows support themselves and he also helped set up the first school for widows in the village of Hingane near Pune, India. Unrelenting in his mission, he also set up the Mahila Vidyala, a residential school for girls to help train them in job-related skills.
The news of this work even reached Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa who would later write about Karve’s inspiring work in the Indian Opinion. Dhondo Keshva Karve also received the status of Maharishi, which was the name given to a great Hindu sage or spiritual leader, as a gesture for his work in women’s education. He also was honored with the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian awards. He passed away in 1962 but his memory lives on with SNDT University which is now over 100 years old.