A Lalitha: How A Single Teen Mom Became India's 1st Female Engineer

Widowed at the age of 18 and with an infant daughter to care for, A Lalitha continued with her studies in electrical engineering to emerge as a trailblazer.

divya Tripathi
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From being a teen widow with a four-month-old daughter to care for, to becoming India's first female engineer, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha's life is nothing short of an inspiration. Born on August 27, 1919, in Madras(Chennai) Lalitha was adamant about pursuing higher studies and wanted to learn more about science and technology. Her father was a professor of electrical engineering, which piqued her interest in electronics. Since child marriage was quite a common practice at the beginning of the twentieth century in India, Lalitha was married at 15. She rebuilt her life after her husband's death and chose to pursue what many thought in that era was a male-dominated field.


In 1943, A Lalitha completed her electrical engineering degree from Alma mater, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras. Being the first woman to take up this course, the college administration had to strike out the word "He" and make it "She" in her degree. Defying all the odds she lived an inspirational life, balancing work and home with the support of her family.

A teenage widow

Lalitha was just 15 years old when she was married in 1934. After three years of marriage, her husband died in 1937, leaving behind 18-year-old Lalitha and a 4-month-old daughter Syamala. The world is not kind to widows even today and it was worse back then. However, challenging all the odds, Lalitha decided to continue her studies to be independent and self-sufficient.

With the support of her family, Lalitha completed her intermediate exam with first class from Queen Mary’s College in Chennai. She then joined the otherwise all-male CEG to pursue electrical engineering. Since no other women were studying there, her father put out an advertisement in the newspaper to invite more women into engineering.

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Image: All Together

Soon, P K Thressia (Civil, 1944-- India's first female chief engineer) and Leelamma Koshie (Civil, 1944) joined, accompanying Lalitha to be trailblazers in India. As part of the four-year curriculum, Lalitha underwent a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop. After her graduation in 1943, she joined the Central Standards Organisation, Simla as a research assistant.

Threesia, Koshie, Lalitha | Image: Twitter/Shantha R Mohan

An inspirational Mother

While working at Simla, Lalitha lived at her brother's place with her daughter. Meanwhile, she also took the Graduateship Exam of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, UK. After helping her father in his research for a brief period, she joined the Associated Electrical Industries (AEI), in Calcutta where she worked on the Bhakhra Nangal Dam project.

Lalitha encouraged her daughter Syamala to take up a career in STEM, who then became a mathematics lecturer at a school in the United States and married an electrical engineer. Lalitha has paved an influential path for not only her daughter but several women in STEM across the world.

Representing Indian women on the world platform

In 1953, the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London elected Lalitha to be an associate member and in 1966 she became a full member. She was also invited to the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES), in New York in 1964. Lalitha became a full member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London in 1965.

During the conference, she said, "The conference resolved to encourage women to increase their participation in the professional societies in their countries. It also resolved to maintain the central file of Women Engineers and Scientists used for this conference and enlarge it as much as possible," as per All Together.

Post-retirement, A Laitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. A Lalitha has left behind a legacy for Indian girls, encouraging us to not fear following our dreams. We can all break the glass ceilings above us, all we need is courage and determination.

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