Anasuya Sarabhai (1885–1972) was a pioneer of the women’s labour movement in India. She founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Majdoor Mahajan Sangh), India’s oldest union of textile workers, in 1920
Early life and education
Sarabhai was born in Ahmedabad on 11 November 1885 into the Sarabhai family, a family of industrialists and business people. Both her parents died when she was nine, so she, her brother Ambalal Sarabhai, and a younger sister were sent to live with an uncle. She undertook an unsuccessful child marriage at the age of 13. With the help of her brother, she went to England in 1912 to take a medical degree but switched to the London School of Economics when she realised the animal dissection involved in obtaining a medical degree was in violation of her Jain beliefs. Whilst in England, she was influenced by the Fabian Society and got involved in the Suffragette movement.
Sarabhai returned to India in 1913 and started working for the betterment of women and the poor. She also started a school. She decided to get involved in the labour movement after witnessing exhausted female mill workers returning home after a 36-hour shift. She helped organise textile workers in a 1914 strike in Ahmedabad. She was also involved in a month-long strike in 1918, where weavers were asking for a 50 percent increase in wages and were being offered 20 percent. Mahatma Gandhi, a friend of the family, was by then acting as a mentor to Sarabhai. Gandhi began a hunger strike on the workers’ behalf, and the workers eventually obtained a 35 percent increase. During the time, Sarabhai organized daily mass meetings of the workers that Gandhi addressed. Following this, in 1920, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Majdoor Mahajan Sangh) was formed.
Legacy and death
Sarabhai was called Motaben, Gujarati for “elder sister”. She mentored Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). Sarabhai died in 1972.On 11 November 2017, Google celebrated Sarabhai’s 132nd birthday with a Google Doodle, visible to users in India.
Anasuya Sarabhai was the aunt of Indian scientist Vikram Sarabhai who is regarded as the father of the Indian space program.