How Lalitha shattered social norms – from being a widow & single mom to become the first female engineer, is an inspiration for every woman.
At IFORHER, we are committed to our purpose of celebrating courageous women. Women who have shown to the world how limitless women can be. And, one such woman is A Lalitha (Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha (27 August 1919 – 12 October 1979)).
Lalitha belonged to the times when widows were not only supposed to bear the pain of their loss but also face the prolonged trauma of banishment from society. Shaving heads and restricted life for widows were the common practice during her times. But rather than bowing down to societal pressure to live an isolated life of feeling perpetual loss, Lalitha decided to build a life of a much greater purpose.
She decided to stand against all the regressive social norms to pursue engineering, which was a male-only field in India at that time. With her undying spirit and courage, Lalitha became India’s first female engineer!
Early Childhood Marriage At Age Of 15
Lalitha, the fifth of seven siblings, was born on 27th August 1919. She belonged to a typical middle-class Telugu family, where boys and girls met different treatments. Her brothers were educated to become engineers, while her sisters were restricted to basic education.
As per the norms prevalent at that time, Lalitha was married off at the young age of 15. Thanks to her supportive father, who insisted that her marriage should not interfere with her education, that Lalitha studied till class 10.
But things took an ugly turn when Lalitha’s husband died and she became a widow at a young age. While sharing her mother’s inspiring story, her daughter mentioned to TBI:
“When my father passed away, mom had to suffer more than she should have. Her mother-in-law had lost her 16th child and took out that frustration on the young widow. It was a coping mechanism and today, I understand what she was going through. However, my mother decided not to succumb to societal pressures. She would educate herself and earn a respectable job.”
During those days, medicine was quite a popular field for women. But, medicine required the professionals to be available round the clock. With a little baby, Lalitha didn’t feel like taking up a profession that would require her to leave her baby in the middle of the night. As a mother, she wanted to have a 9 to 5 job, which let her spend time with her beloved baby girl.
Hence Lalitha chose to become an engineer, just like her father, Pappu Subba Rao, and her brothers.
The key officials – her father, Rao, a professor of Electrical Engineering, KC Chacko, the college Principal and RM Statham, the Director of Public Instruction, at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras, were supportive of admitting a woman—a first in CEG’s history.
Contrary to what people may assume, Lalitha received all the support from her colleagues:
“Contrary to what people might think, the students at amma’s college were extremely supportive. She was the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys but no one ever made her feel uncomfortable and we need to give credit to this. The authorities arranged for a separate hostel for her too. I used to live with my uncle while amma was completing college and she would visit me every weekend,”
Just a few months after Lalitha started her studies, she shared how she felt lonely in college. That was the moment when Rao believed this was the opportunity to invite more women to enter the field of engineering. Post an advertisement, Leelamma George and PK Thresia soon joined the college for the civil engineering course.
The college had to remove the word ‘He’ from their printed certificates and replace it with ‘She’ for Lalitha, Thresia, and Leelamma when they graduated.
For a brief period after graduating from CEG, Lalitha worked with the Central Standard Organisation in Shimla as well as with her father in Chennai.
While sharing the details of how she saw her mother at that time, Syamala shared:
“My aunt lived in Kolkata and had a son about my age. We were very close and so, amma used to go to work leaving me with my cousin and aunt. That’s how I grew up. Although, today, I can understand how important my mother is in the history of women’s education in India as well as in the history of engineering, back then, all I knew was that my mom is an engineer—just another engineer.”
The world took years to recognize Lalitha’s achievements. In 1964 she was invited to the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) in New York.
Syamala shares how her mother never let her feel the absence of a father in her life:
“But what I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She never remarried and never made me feel the absence of a father in my life. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over. I never asked her why she never got married again. But when my husband asked her, she had replied, “To take care of an old man again? No, thank you!”
Though Lalitha passed away at the young age of 60 years due to a brain aneurysm, her legacy will live forever!
At IFORHER, we are in awe of this inspiring woman who shattered social norms and went on to become a successful electrical engineer, lighting up the way for others to follow.