Savitribai Phule was born on January 3, 1831 in the village of Naigaon in Satara District of Maharashtra. Her birthplace was about five kilometers from Shirval and about 50 kilometers from Pune. Savitribai Phule was an eldest daughter of Lakshmi and Khandoji Neveshe Patil, both of them belonged to the Mali Community. Savitribai and Jotirao had no children of their own, It is said that but they adopted Yashawantrao, a son born to a Brahmin widow. However, there is no original evidence of this.At the time of her marriage, Savitribai Phule had no education. Jyotirao Phule’s father turned him and his wife, Savitribai, out of the house when he refused to give up the idea of starting school in association with the American missionary’s female school in Ahmadnagar.
After completing her teacher’s education, Savitribai Phule started teaching girls at the Maharwada in Pune. She did so alongside Sagunabai who was a revolutionary feminist as well as a mentor to Jyotirao. Not long after beginning to teach with Sagunabai, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule along with Sagunabai started their own school at Bhide Wada. Bhide Wada was the home of Tatya Saheb Bhide, who was inspired by the work that the trio was doing.
The curriculum at Bhide Wada included traditional western curriculum of mathematics, science, and social studies. By the end of 1851, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were running three different schools for girls in Pune. Combined, the three schools had approximately one hundred and fifty students enrolled. Like the curriculum, the teaching methods employed by the three schools differed from those used in government schools. The author, Divya Kandukuri believes that the Phule methods were regarded as being superior to those used by government schools. As a result of this reputation, the number of girls receiving their education at the Phule’s schools outnumbered the number of boys enrolled in government schools.
Unfortunately, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule’s success came with much resistance from the local community with conservative views. Kandukuri states that Savitribai often travelled to her school carrying an extra sari because she would be assailed by her conservative opposition with stones, dung, and verbal abuse. The Phules faced such strong opposition because of the conservative (Brahmin) and marginalized caste to which they belonged. The Sudra community had been denied education for thousands of years. For this reason, many Shudra /Brahmins began to oppose Jyotirao and Savitribai’s work and labeled it as “evil”. This uproar was always instigated by the upper castes.Up until 1849, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule were living at Jyotirao’s father’s home. However, in 1849, Jyotirao’s father, asked the couple to leave his home because their work was considered a sin in the Brahmanical texts.
After moving out of Jyotirao’s father’s home, the Phule’s moved in with the family of one of Jyotirao’s friends, Usman Sheikh. It was there that Savitribai met a soon to be close friend and colleague named Fatima Begum Sheikh. According to Nasreen Sayyed, a leading scholar on Sheikh, “Fatima Sheikh knew how to read and write already, her brother Usman who was a friend of Jyotiba, had encouraged Fatima to take up the teacher training course. She went along with Savitribai to the Normal School and they both graduated together. She was the first Muslim woman teacher of India”. Fatima and Savitribai opened a school in Sheikh’s home in 1849.
In the 1850s, Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule established two educational trusts. They were entitled: the Native Female School, Pune and the Society for Promoting the Education of Mahars, Mangs, and Etceteras. These two trusts ended up encompassing many schools which were led by Savitribai Phule and later, Fatima Sheikh.
Pune City Corporation created a memorial for her in 1983.
- In 2015, the University of Pune was renamed as Savitribai Phule Pune University in her honour.
- On 10 March 1998 a stamp was released by India Post in honour of Phule.
On 3 January 2017, the search engine Google marked the 188th anniversary of the birth of Savitribai Phule with a doodle.
Along with Ambedkar and Annabhau Sathe, Phule has become an icon in particular for the Dalit Mang caste. Women in local branches of the Manavi Hakk Abhiyan (Human Rights Campaign, a Mang-Ambedkarite body) frequently organise processions on their jayanti (birthday in Marathi and other Indian languages).
A Kannada biopic movie was made about Phule in 2018 and in 2020 the Indian Prime Minister paid tribute to her contribution on her birthday.
Savitribai Phule was also a prolific author and poet. She published Kavya Phule in 1854 and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar in 1892, and also a poem entitled “Go, Get Education” in which she encouraged those who are oppressed to free themselves by obtaining an education. As a result of her experience and work, she became an ardent feminist. She established the Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness for issues concerning women’s rights. She also called for a gathering place for women that was free of caste discrimination or differentiation of any kind. Symbolic of this was that all the women that attended were to sit on the same mat. Savitribai was also an anti-infanticide activist. She opened a women’s shelter called the Home for the Prevention of Infanticide, where Brahmin widows could safely deliver their children and leave them there to be adopted if they so desired. She also campaigned against child marriage and was a advocate of widow remarriage.Savitribai and Jyotirao strongly opposed Sati Pratha and they started a home for widows and forlorn childerns.
Savitribai and her adopted son, Yashwant, opened a clinic to treat those affected by the worldwide Third Pandemic of the bubonic pleague when it appeared in the area around Nalasopara in 1897.The clinic was established at stern outskirts of Pune, in an area free of infection. Savitribai died a heroic death trying to save the son of Pandurang Babaji Gaekwad. Upon learning that Gaekwad’s son had contracted the Plague in the Mahar settlement outside of Mundhwa, Savitribai Phule rushed to his side and carried him on her back to the hospital. In the process, Savitribai Phule caught the Plague and died at 9:00pm on the 10th of March, 1897.