From being a teen widow with a four-month-old daughter to care for, to becoming India’s first woman electrical engineer, A. Lalitha’s life is nothing short of an inspiration. Born on August 27, 1919, in Madras(Chennai) A. Lalitha was very good at studies and wanted to learn more about science and technology. Her father was a professor of electrical engineering, which piqued her interest in electronics. She had four older and two younger siblings, all of them were in the same field.
- A. Lalitha was India’s first woman electrical engineer.
- She was married at the age of 15 and her husband died when she was 18, and mother to a four-month-old daughter
- She completed her electrical engineering degree from Alma mater, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras.
- Lalitha represented India in “International Conference of Women Engineers & Scientists” in 1964.
Since child marriage was quite a common practice in the beginning of the twentieth century in India, A. Lalitha was married at the age of 15. She rebuilt her life after her husband’s death and chose to pursue what many thought in that era as a male-dominated field. Electronics was and still is considered to be a “man’s job”, but didn’t seem to deter Lalitha. 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 between 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 her marriage, she continued her studies till class 10th. After three years of marriage, her husband died in 1937, leaving behind 18 years old Lalitha and a 4-month-old daughter Syamala. The world is not kind to widows even today and it was worse back then, but challenging all the odds, she 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.
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.
After this brilliant performance, she was pretty clear that she wanted to follow the footsteps of her father and brothers. She wanted to study electronics because other fields like medicine didn’t fascinate her as much as electronics did. Even for a brilliant student like Lalitha, it wasn’t easy to get into any engineering institute as it was early 1900s and the electrical field was dominated by men. Luckily her father Pappu Subba Rao was a professor of electrical engineering, at CEG. He helped her to get admission into the University of Madras.
An inspirational Mother
She was one of the only female students from her course, and there were the two other girls (from civil branch), in the college. After she graduated from CEG in 1944, she joined the Central Standards Organization of India, Simla, as an engineering assistant. She lived at her brother’s place with her daughter, to give her proper upbringing with the help of her family. 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 moment, she joined the Associated Electrical Industries (AEI), in Calcutta where her second brother lived. During her tenure, she also worked on the Bhakhra Nangal Dam project.
Her daughter, who has a degree in science and education, never felt the absence of her father as she had such a strong mother. Lalitha encouraged her daughter to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In fact, her son-in-law was also an electrical engineer. She also supported her daughter to learn extracurricular activities like swimming and tennis. Syamala teaches mathematics at a school in the USA.
A. Lalitha was one of the only female students from her course, and there were the two other girls (from civil branch), in the college.
Representing Indian women on the world platform
In 1953, the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), London elected her to be an associate member and in 1966 she became a full member. She was also invited at the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES), in New York 1964. The aim of this conference was to increase the participation of women in STEM. Lalitha became a full member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London in 1965.
During the conference in one of her speech, she said, ” The conference resolved to encourage women to increase their participation in the professional societies in their countries. To improve their qualifications not only during their student days but throughout their professional life. 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 she was 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. We can all break the glass ceilings above us, all we need is courage and determination.
Divya Tripathi is an intern with SheThePeople.TV