Legislators with India's Parliament in New Delhi cheered Wednesday after they unanimously elected a woman from the country's lowest caste as their first female Speaker.
Meira Kumar, 64, is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime minister and a prominent leader of the Dalits — known also as the untouchables. Kumar replaced Somnath Chaterjee, a Brahmin, which is India's highest caste.
Women's rights groups welcomed the election. Ranjana Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, said it was "indicative of greater acceptance for women's leadership."
Trained in law and a former career diplomat, Kumar is a seasoned politician, having been elected to Parliament five times and also serving as social justice minister.
As Speaker, Kumar will preside over India's powerful — and often rowdy — lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha, which opened its first session Monday.
The move will likely perpetuate the image of the Congress party — which led a coalition victory in elections that ended May 16 — as a booster of women's rights and the lower castes.
India has had other women in positions of political power, including the country's current President Pratibha Patil, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966.