Anasuya Sarabhai was a pioneer of the women’s labour movement in India. She founded the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association, India’s oldest union of textile workers, in 1920.
She was born in Ahmedabad on 11 November 1885 into the Sarabhai family, a family of industrialists and business people. She lost both her parents when she was only nine. She and her two younger siblings were brought up by their uncle.
At the age of 13, an unwilling Anasuya was married off by her uncle. Her marriage was brief and unhappy; she divorced her husband and returned to her own family.
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.
She returned to India in 1913 and started working for betterment of women and the poor, particularly among mill workers. 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 per cent increase in wages, whereas they were being offered 20 per cent.
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. During the time, Sarabhai organized daily mass meetings of the workers that Gandhi addressed.
Following this, Sarabhai organized assorted craft unions early in her career and by 1920 was instrumental in establishing the conglomerate Textile Labour Association (Majdoor Mahajan Sangh).
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.
Anasuya Sarabhai was the aunt of Indian scientist Vikram Sarabhai who is regarded as the father of the Indian space program.