June 4, 2023
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Refusing Isolation: From an 18-year-old widow with a baby to India’s first woman engineer

New York, 1964. The inaugural global meeting of the Society of Women Engineers.

“If I had been born 150 years ago in my country, I would have been burned at the funeral pyre with my husband’s body,” a woman in a modest saree says as she takes the stage to speak.

That was sufficient for the world to take A Lalitha, the country’s first female engineer, seriously.

The Path She Travelled:

On August 27, 1919, Lalitha was born into a middle-class family in Madras. She was only 15 when she wed in 1934. Lalitha stopped studying after earning her SSLC in order to care for her family. In 1937, Syamala, her daughter, was born. Syamala’s father passed away when she was only four months old.

An 18-year-old widow with a four-month-old daughter, Lalitha returned to her parents. Go-getter and a visionary, Pappu Subbarao was Lalitha’s father and a professor at the College of Engineering (CEG), Guindy. The dad was relentless in his efforts to educate his daughter.

Lalitha also wanted to obtain a professional degree since she wanted to be independent. Lalitha received assistance from her family while attending Queen Mary’s College in Madras and graduated with honours.

Lalitha felt more drawn to medicine, but she wasn’t sure if she would have the time and energy to devote to finishing the demanding medical studies. Instead, she made the decision to become an engineer, giving herself more time to care for her little daughter. In the college, there were no other female students. Because he was realistic, her father came up with a creative solution to his daughter’s loneliness. He published an ad in a newspaper urging women to enrol in engineering programmes! The plan was successful since PK Thressia and Leelamma George, two more women, joined CEG. Lalitha stuck to her chosen field of electrical while they were determined to pursue civil engineering.

Lalitha did well in her studies and having companionship made college life more comfortable. In September 1943, she earned her engineering degree with honours and became the first woman engineer in the nation.

She was active in a number of women’s organisations in addition to her professional career, including the National Federation of Indian Women and the All India Women’s Conference. She was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and gender equality and thought that women should have the same access to chances in both school and employment. She worked extensively to promote these principles.

Lalitha finally received recognition for her contributions to women’s rights and the engineering industry. She received the Padma Shri award in 1969 for her contributions to the engineering industry.

Also, she received an invitation to the 1964 New York World’s Fair’s First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, where she represented India. Here’s where she had very famously said, “150 years ago, I would have been burned at the funeral pyre with my husband’s body.”

Picture Courtesy: Google/images are subject to copyright


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