Defying Stereotypes, Sushma Tewari Made History As IIT Kanpur’s First Female Student

In an interview with SheThePeople,  Dr Sushma Tewari recalls her ambition to learn physics despite societal resistance, her experiences as a then lone female student at IIT Kanpur, and why she urges women to put equal efforts in both career and marriage.

Paawani Gupta
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dr. Sushma Tiwari

Dr. Sushma Tewari, 83 years old, is the first female student of IIT Kanpur.

A Theoretical Physicist, a mother and a patriot, Dr Sushma Tewari, 83, created history throughout her career. She was the first female student to enter the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1962 when she was 21 years old. In an interview with SheThePeople, Dr Sushma Tewari recalls her ambition to learn physics despite societal resistance, her experiences as a lone female student at IIT Kanpur, and why she urges women to put equal efforts in both career and marriage.


Dr. Sushma Tewari- The First Female Student and Teacher!

With a Phd in theoretical physics her field of research was 'solid state physics and band structure calculations' along with which she published numerous books and got her research published in famous international journals like, Physical review and Physica Status Solidi, later she also got offered a post doctoral fellowship from the Stanford University which she refused. When asked what made her think about joining IIT Kanpur, a place that did not have any female student before, she said, "You see all through my life I have been alone in all my classes, in MSc BSc because I had taken maths and the girls with me took biology so that they can go for MBBS but I never wanted that and I wanted to be unique, that is why I chose mathematics and physics." 

First Female Student in DAV College

She was not only the first female student in IIT Kanpur but also the first to study BSc in Mathematics in DAV College  Kanpur. She explained, "At that time in Kanpur there was no school in mathematics for girls so I was admitted in DAV College on special permission from the Vice Chancellor for maths so that I could study along with the boys and from there onwards my journey started.

The faculty of the Physics Department made remarks on her pursuing MSc in Physics, "Girls have not done MSc in physics, no girl passes MSc in physics so she will fail if she takes admission over here." Dr Tewari always insisted on doing something unique and despite their opposition she took admission and secured first division. The physics department then said, "Oh we always knew the girl was intelligent and could do it." 

Being The First Female Teacher in VSSD Boys College

After this, Dr Sushma Tewari wanted to take some time to do research and teach. She was again the first female teacher in the VSSD College but the Convener of the Selection committee said, "You are such a lean and thin girl of young age how will you control the boys?" To this Dr Tewari replied, "Okay you are taking one more person along with me, can you take the guarantee that he can control the class better than me?" The Convener gave a big laugh and Dr Tewari took the job and it turned out that boys would never cause nuisance in front of her because “boys did not like to get scolded by a girl." 


When asked how her parents responded to her selection in IIT Kanpur, Dr. Sushma Tewari stated that her father passed away when she was in class 9 and how her mother always prioritised education. Growing up every person has an inspirational figure but Dr Tewari only had her ambitions and goals to look upto. She said, "I never looked for anything else except that being a girl why can't I do this? I can do this if boys can do this so that was my motive."

When she entered her Physics class in IIT Kanpur her Physics Professor made a remark "Yeh ladki fail hone aa gayi hai (this girl has come to fail)" but Dr Tewari wondered, "I always thought to myself I will do it, I will do it and I did it! I always had this in my mind that I am a unique person and I will compete with the boys."

On asking her if there was any animosity between her classmates (all boys) and her, Dr. Tewari said that during her MSc and Phd her classmates were very cooperative and helpful. She recalled  and said, "At that time there was no such freedom that the girls can talk to boys directly so during my MSc classes when i was doing experiments and if get into problem I would ask the lab assistant to go and get some class fellows so they can help me. They would bring notes, books and help me with work. They were cooperative to such an extent that one of my research colleagues married me!," she laughed.

Later on talking about how she balanced career and family, Dr. Tewari explained that she always thought that either she will never marry and pursue her career or if  she would marry she will not worry about her career. She also recalled that in 1960s how she told her mother boldly, "I am not going to marry like someone is coming to look at me like I am an object and then rejecting me and going to another shop, I will marry according to my wishes." She recalled how she married her closest companion with whom she shared irrevocable trust and understanding for 55 years. 

Lastly, we asked her views on the development of STEM as a gender neutral stream where Dr. Tewari mentioned that we have come a long way from the 1960s and even today girls should choose what they want, what they like and not get intimidated by their parents and societies. She also said, it is crucial for girls to know they are not less than boys, and also that they are above them. We are equals. She encouraged us to put equal efforts in every aspect of our life, career, marriage and personal growth. 

Dr. Sushma Tewari's journey does not only inspire us but also puts forth the importance of choice in every woman's life. It is imperative for women to make decisions about their education, career, family and personal life.

Dr. Sushma Tewari First Female Student in IIT Kanpur