In a time when the widows were banished from society, one of them dared to study further and become an engineer. This is the story of how a young mother joined a college for men and impacted the world forever. A Lalitha, the first Female Engineer of India.
Lalitha was born in Chennai in a Telugu Family on 27th August 1919. As was popular back then, she was married at the age of 15. She finished her 10th-grade education after her marriage but then didn’t continue her studies. Her sisters were all 10th pass while her brothers and her father were Engineers. In 1937, at 18 years old she gave birth to her daughter named Syamala. Only four months after the fact, her husband died.
Due to certain traditions and customs, the life of a widow in India is extremely difficult. While the practice of Sati has been outlawed, where a woman was burnt at the pyre of her dead husband, there continue to be a lot of other such customs. In most states of India, widows are supposed to shave their heads and live a simple life confined to a few rooms. Even in most urban cities, they are often only allowed to wear white sarees with no vanity and excluded from most social events.
During her time, it was even worse. Lalitha however, decided to become self-sufficient and support her daughter. She joined Queen Mary’s College in Chennai and continued her education. Her father, who was a teacher at CEG convinced the principal to allow her admission into the all-male institute. Lalitha was supported by her family and parents during this time. They looked after her daughter and her brothers let her live with them. Meanwhile Lalitha earned her Electrical Engineering degree with Honors from CEG with two more women admitted after her. Their certificates had a hand scribbled ‘She’ in place of a crossed out ‘he’.
She started working at the Central Standards Organisation of India as an Engineering Assistant. After which she started working with her father on his inventions. Patents they filed during this time include a musical instrument called Jelectromonium and an ‘electric flame’ producer. Due to financial issues, she started looking for a job after a few months and joined Associated Electrical Industries where she spent her next 30 years. During this, she lived with her brother and sister-in-law who helped raise her daughter Syamala.
Lalitha was granted membership by the Institute of Electrical Engineers, London during this time. She was also invited to a 1964 conference for women in STEM. It was the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) in New York. She spoke about her struggles as a single mother and a widow in STEM fields. After coming back, she gave a number of interviews in major newspapers and magazines about women’s issues in India. She also started campaigning for the second conference and got five more women to attend this time.
Even after her retirement, she continued to champion the cause of women in STEM. At the age of 60, she suffered a brain aneurysm. After a few weeks, she passed away.
Her daughter Syamala notes that she never felt the absence of her dad because her mother had such a strong presence in her life. Everyone from Lalitha’s brothers to her parents and her sisters-in-law helped raise Syamala as their own. This is a great example of how when supported by family, remarkable women can not only achieve greatness but lead on to raise a new generation of exemplary people.