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Pandita Ramabai was just five feet tall, with short black hair and small bones. Yet wherever she went the presence of this Brahman Indian woman—characterized by her grey-green eyes, shapely lips, and light complexion—seemed to cast a spell over all whom she met. She was adored as a goddess when she arrived in Calcutta at age 20. Years later, when she addressed the 2000 delegates of the National Social Congress in Bombay in 1889 (the first woman to do so), she took the assembly by storm.

As she was preparing to speak on two resolutions for gender reform, her audience took some time to settle down. She remained silent and still until you could have heard a pin drop and then began with the remarkable words: "It is not strange, my countrymen, that my voice is small, for you have never given a woman the chance to make her voice strong!" From that moment on, she carried her enraptured listeners in the palm of her hand, and the resolutions were passed by a huge majority.

And so it was throughout much of India and then America: Audiences were moved to laughter and tears before responding with resounding applause and standing ovations. She knew many of the sacred texts of the Hindu religion by heart and had an ear for the varied cadences of the written and spoken word. But she also knew from 20 years of wandering the hard realities of everyday life for Indian women. It was a brave person who ventured to contradict this combination of academic brilliance and personal experience. She was a born leader, held in awe by the rich and famous and trusted by the poor and oppressed.

The renowned Indian social reformer D. K. Karve wrote, "Pandita Ramabai was one of the greatest daughters of India." As an outstanding ...

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