Should enfranchisement for women or independence from the British be prioritised? This was the debate in pre-independence politics.

But a young girl, Mithan Lam saw no reason why the two demands couldn’t co-exist.

It was a conversation with Princess Sophia Duleep Singh — a feminist, suffragist and daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire — that sparked Mithan’s interest in women’s rights.

Mithan and her mother Herabai Tata — the wife of industrialist Ardeshir Bejonji Tata (a member of Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Tata’s extended family) — met the princess while on a holiday in Kashmir in 1911.

Sophia was wearing a small yellow-green badge proclaiming ‘Votes for Women’.

At the time, she was a prominent suffragette in the UK and told the mother-daughter duo about the movement, convincing them to advocate for women’s voting rights in India.

In 1918, Herabai expressed the famous nationalist slogan, “Home Rule is our birthright”, but added a caveat, “We [women] say the right to vote is our birthright, and we want it.”

The following year, they had their chance to make the case for Indian women in the British Parliament, which was considering political reforms for India.

This process in the British Parliament would result in what we understand today as the Government of India Act, 1919, or the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

In the autumn of 1919, Mithan and Herabai were chosen by various women’s groups in then-Bombay to represent their interests in London.

Their argument before the MPs was quite straightforward — any meaningful political reform that excluded half the population based on sex would never work.

Unfortunately, the British Parliament didn’t take their representation on board but left the decision of female suffrage at the discretion of provincial governments in India.

Just two years later, in 1921, both the Bombay and Madras presidencies gave women the right to vote. Although it was Rajkot State which granted full universal suffrage in 1923.

Mithan went on to pursue a master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1920 and sailed back to India in 1924. Here she became the first woman to practice law at the Bombay High Court.

Mithan would go on to have a stellar legal career, which involved shaping gender-sensitive laws for marriage, divorce and inheritance, particularly in the Parsi community.

Later, as president of the All-India Women’s Conference, she wanted women to move away from “sewing and knitting classes” to greater active participation in industries.

Her activism was not restricted to only women’s issues. She also spearheaded hunger eradication programmes, anti-child labour advocacy, and slum improvement projects in India.

By the time she passed away in 1981, she had mentored generations of Indian feminists, some of whom became lawyers themselves.