Among the southern states, Andhra had the unique distinction of contributing the largest contingent of women Satyagrahis who, unmindful of the hardships, entered the prisons. In the non-cooperation movement of 1922, a young girl of twelve years offered satyagraha at Kakinada. This young girl, Durgabai, afterwards exhibited her dynamic abilities by founding a unique organisation — the Andhra Mahila Sabha — which is regarded as the foremost among the women’s welfare and educational institutions of entire South India.
Durgabai, familiar to the rest of the country as Durgabai Deshmukh was born in Rajahmundry on 15 July 1909. As noted earlier she participated in the Non-Co-operation Movement when she was hardly twelve years of age. After the suspension of the Non Co-operation Movement, she propagated the ideals of Gandhiji in the villages around Rajahmundry and Kakinada, by establishing schools to give training to women in spinning and weaving.
Along with Andhra Kesari T. Prakasam, she participated in the Salt Satyagraha movement in Madras city in May 1930. She was imprisoned in 1930 and again in 1932. In spite of her active participation in the national struggle Durgabai found time to take the M.A. and B.L. degrees. From 1935 till her death she devoted her entire energy to the welfare of women and children.
In 1936 she established Andhra Mahila Sabha mainly, to coach young Telugu girls of Madras city to appear for the Matriculation examination of the Banaras Hindu University. From such a humble beginning Andhra Mahila Sabha became within a decade a great institution of education and social welfare in the city of Madras. She had the unique capacity to get funds for the institution from both the rich and the poor alike. Andhra Mahila Sabha trained women in various activities like nursing, journalism, and teaching. Durgabai founded and edited a monthly journal in Telugu called Andhra Mahila. The activities of Andhra Mahila Sabha attracted the attention of Pandit Nehru who wanted to utilize the services of Durgabai at the national level.
At the national level Durgabai’s services were utilised fully. She was the Chairwoman of a number of central organisations like, Central Social Welfare Board, National Council for Women’s Education and National Committee on girls’ and women’s education. She was a Member of Parliament and Planning Commission. She was also associated with the Andhra Educational Society, New Delhi.
After the formation of Andhra Pradesh, Andhra Mahila Sabha extended its activities to Hyderabad city. At Hyderabad, Andhra Mahila Sabha, besides running a number of educational institutions including a college, opened many welfare institutions for women and children.
Durgabai was awarded the fourth Nehru Literary Award in 1971 for her outstanding contribution to the promotion of literacy in India. In 1975 she was awarded ‘Padma Vibhushan.’
Durgabai Deshmukh died on 9th May, 1981. In her death the country has lost one of the most dynamic women of the country.