Overlooked No More: Hansa Mehta, Who Fought for Women’s Equality in India and Beyond

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Human rights has long been considered a Western concept, but recent scholarship has been uncovering the influence of women from the global south. Women like Hansa Mehta.

Mehta stood up against the British government during India’s struggle for independence. She campaigned for women’s social and political equality and their right to an education. And she fought for her ideals during the framing of the constitution for a newly independent India.

For Mehta, women’s rights were human rights. This conviction was best exemplified at a 1947 meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, to which she had been appointed as one of just two women delegates, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt. Mehta boldly objected to the wording of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the commission was tasked with framing.

It read: “All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed by nature with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another like brothers.”

Mehta pointed out that the phrase “all men” was out of date and could be interpreted to exclude women.

Roosevelt countered that the use of the word “men” was “generally accepted to include all human beings,” according to minutes of the meeting. But Mehta — a soft-spoken, slight woman who dressed in traditional saris — held her ground, insisting that the language should be changed to “human beings.”

The declaration was adopted with her suggestion the next year, and it has been used as the foundation for treaties around the world.

Two years earlier, Mehta was one of three women who drafted the Indian Women’s Charter of Rights and Duties, which affirmed that women have equal rights to education, suffrage, pay and distribution of property, as well as the same rights as men in marriage and divorce. When the panel that became the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in 1946 was forming its guiding principles, it turned to her ideas.

In her work for the U.N., as in all her endeavors, Mehta took women’s participation in public and political realms to new heights.

Hansa Mehta was born on July 3, 1897, in Surat (now in the northwestern state of Gujarat), to Harshadagauri and Manubhai Mehta. Her father, Manubhai, was a philosophy professor at Baroda College (now Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda); he later became the prime minister of the state of Baroda.

Hansa’s paternal grandfather, Nandshankar Mehta, was headmaster of an English-language school, a civil servant and the author of the historical novel “Karan Ghelo”(1866), about the 13th-century ruler of Gujarat whose foolishness resulted in the loss of his kingdom. It is considered the first novel written in the Gujarati language.

“I was fortunate enough to be born in a family which had liberal ideas on all questions of life,” Mehta said in 1972 in an oral history at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.

At a time when she estimated that only 2 percent of Indian women were literate, Mehta attended a high school for girls that had been set up by Baroda’s progressive ruler. She read widely, including novels by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. She was one of a handful of young women to receive a bachelor’s degree, hers in philosophy, from Baroda College.

Mehta continued her education in England, where she met the poet and political activist Sarojini Naidu. Naidu took her under her wing and brought her to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance conference in Geneva in 1920.

Naidu “made me do things I otherwise would not have dreamt of doing,” like speaking in public, Mehta wrote in “Indian Woman,” a 1981 collection of her essays.

In 1923, she traveled alone to the United States, a rare undertaking for women at the time, and visited colleges and universities to learn about American women’s education.

She met Mohandas K. Gandhi when he was in jail in India in the 1920s, and in 1930 she responded to his call for women to join the freedom movement. She picketed stores that sold English rather than Indian-made cloth and helped lead protests, landing in jail three times.

As a founder of the All India Women’s Conference, and later its president, Mehta tied the political struggle for India’s independence with the fight to improve the condition of her countrywomen. “If we wish to build up a democratic state, it will not pay the state to keep half the number of its citizens uneducated,” she wrote in “Indian Woman.” But she opposed special quotas; she wanted to level the playing field between men and women.

Mehta was appointed to the Commission on the Status of Women in 1946 and to the Commission on Human Rights in 1947 — the same year that India gained its independence — and served until 1952. In 1946, she was one of about 15 women to join India’s Constituent Assembly, which met to write a constitution for the new nation.

As an assembly member she lobbied for a civil code that would eventually supersede religious laws and ensure gender equality, and she strengthened the language on what are known as “directive principles” — guidelines that are unenforceable by the courts but nonetheless crucial in governing a multiethnic and multireligious secular democracy.

In 1924, Mehta married Jivraj Mehta (a common surname in India), the chief medical officer in Baroda. The marriage was regarded as controversial because he was of a lower caste. She said in her oral history that her own community wanted to expel her from her caste, “but then I told them I was going out of the caste myself, as I did not believe in caste.”

She and her husband had two children. He became the first chief minister of Gujarat in 1960 and, in 1963, the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, a post equivalent to an ambassadorship.

Mehta was vice chancellor of the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University (commonly known as S.N.D.T.) from 1946 to 1948 and vice chancellor of the University of Baroda from 1949 to 1958. At Baroda, she was the first woman to hold that title at an Indian coed university. The library there is named after her. In 2021, the U.N. held the inaugural Dr. Hansa Mehta Dialogue, a discussion on the fundamental importance of women’s empowerment.

Throughout her life, Mehta wrote essays and translated stories and plays into Gujarati. She died at 98 on April 4, 1995.

In the oral history, when she was asked why India, although it was largely conservative in its attitude toward women, had more women in the public and political sphere than many Western nations, Mehta spoke of Shakti, the female personification of divine power. “Historical reasons,” she replied, “because from the beginning we have always considered woman as a competent person. ‘Shakti’ — she is always worshiped as ‘Shakti.’”

Radha Vatsal’s historical novel “No. 10 Doyers Street,” about a woman journalist from India who becomes embroiled in the case of a Chinatown gangster in 1900s New York, will be published in March 2025.

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