May 5th in (Feminist) History

original_archived_photo_of_pritilata_waddedarThis day in 1911 saw the birth of Pritilata Waddedar, a Bengali educator and revolutionary nationalist. Pritilata was born to a family in Dhalghat village in Patiya upazila of Chittagong (which is now in Bangladesh). Her father believed in the importance of education, and so Pritilata was educated in several schools, eventually attending Bethune College in Calcutta. After finishing school she returned to Chittagong and became the headmistress at an English medium secondary school.

In June of 1932, she joined a revolutionary group as part of the Indian Independence Movement (against colonial rule in India), led by Surya Sen. As part of the group, Pritilata took part in many raids, including supplying explosives to her fellow revolutionaries in one battle.

In 1932, Pritilata was chosen to lead a 15-man team of revolutionaries in an attack on the Pahartali European Club, which had a sign which read “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. Surya chose two women to lead the attack because he wanted it to have an even more dramatic effect; however the other woman, Kalpana Datta, was arrested a week before the attack and so Pritilata assumed leadership alone. On the day of the attack, September 23 932, Pritilata disguised herself as a Pubjabi man, and lead a group of male revolutionaries into the club to attempt to burn it down.

After torching the club, the revolutionaries fled but were later caught by British police. Pritilata, who was only 21 at the time, committed suicide by cyanide rather than be arrested by British authorities. Given that this had been part of the plan to avoid capture, Pritilata had a suicide note within the breast pocket of her uniform. It read, in part:

“I wonder why there should be any distinction between males and females in a fight for the cause of the country’s freedom? If our brothers can join a fight for the cause of the motherland why can’t the sisters? Instances are not rare that Rajput ladies of hallowed memory fought bravely in the battlefields and did not hesitate to kill their country’s enemies…If sisters can stand side by side with the brothers in a Satyagraha movement, why are they not so entitled in a revolutionary movement. […] I earnestly hope that our sisters would no longer nurse the view that they are weak. Armed women of India will demolish a thousand hurdles, disregard a thousand dangers, and join the rebellion and the armed struggle for freedom.”

Pritilata was considered the first woman to have martyred herself for India in their fight for freedom against the British.

Also on this day:

  • On this day in 1809, Mary (Dixon) Kies was awarded a U.S. patent, for her technique of weaving straw with silk and thread; making her the first woman to ever receive a patent. The popular method of braiding straw for hats was actually invented in 1798 by a New England woman named Betsy Metcalf, who is credited with having started the American straw-hat industry. Though Betsy could have sought a patent thanks to the Patent Act of 1790, women at the time were not allowed to legally own property independent from their husbands. As such Betsy, like many women of the time, did not bother to attempt patenting her invention. Mary was the first one to do so, and was congratulated by the First Lady herself for her contributions to the New England hat industry.
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