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Margaret Cousins was an activist and freedom fighter. Born at Boyle in County Roscommon, Margaret was educated there and in Derry. She studied music at the Royal Irish Academy and worked briefly as a teacher. In 1903 she married the poet and philosopher James H. Cousins who shared her interest in theosophy. In 1908 she played an active role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Ireland and England.

That year James became a Theosophist. She joined the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and in 1910 went as a delegate to the Parliament of Women in London, where she was briefly imprisoned for throwing stones at 10 Downing Street. In 1915 James got an offer to come to Madras and edit Annie Besant’s New India; Margaret decided to accompany him and work for the Society.

Soon after her arrival she began to take a keen interest in all matters related to improving the status of women. She was the first non-Indian member of the Indian Women’s University, Pune, in 1916. She envisioned and established in 1917 the first women’s organization in India, the Women’s Indian Association, with 2,100 members in the Madras Presidency alone, which she used very effectively to exert pressure on the government to grant voting rights to Indian women. The association, of which more than 40 branches were established, prefigured the All India Women’s Conference, which came into being in 1926.

The year 1918 was a watershed for the women’s movement in India, with a delegation of women, including Margaret, meeting Edwin Montagu and Lord Chelmsford to demand greater reforms for women. That same year women were granted, though conditionally, the right to vote, and in 1926 she saw to it that they were also granted the right to stand for election the Vidhan Sabha of Madras. This ensured that they could both vote as women and vote for other women. Margaret also edited the journal Stree Dharma for many years. In 1932 she protested the government’s policy of rule by ordinance, and went to jail for a year. There she used to lead other prisoners in singing Annie Besant’s nationalist revision of the British national anthem—‘God Save Our Motherland’. She contributed to the founding of the Lady Irwin College in Delhi, and helped in setting up many smaller schools, colleges and foundations. In 1936 she served as president of the AIWC. She organised many institutions like the Madras Seva Sadan and Children’s Aid Society. She organised a women’s deputation to Mr. E.S. Montagu, Secretary of State for India, at Madras, which made the first demand for franchise for women in India. In 1943 she was struck down by paralysis, and many admirers came to her aid with support and sympathy.

Amita Sahaya
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