On Engineer’s Day 2020 – Women who engineered a pioneering path
Beyond Redwalls of CEG:Ep15: “The First Woman Engineer in India”-A tribute by Dr.Shantha Mohan
Roots And Wings: Inspiring Stories Of Indian Women In Engineering is an anthology written by Shantha Mohan. The 29 women featured in the book are some of the first women engineers in India.
♦️ Any kind of change takes time for acceptance. It calls for a lot of conviction and calmness of mind to stick to the right path, thus bringing in confidence.
♦️The book talked about women from diverse personal backgrounds that covered the diverse experience life gives.
♦️‘You can have it all, just not all at one’, said Oprah Winfrey . The way these women pursued their varied interests from painting to teaching children at various stages of their life along with a successful career stands testament to Winfrey’s statement. ♦️It was heartwarming to read about the support system they had in terms of family and extended family and showed the heights women can reach with support to hold on to when things can get overwhelming.
♦️Most important of all comes the lessons for working moms who easily build up mom-guilt. Here were children who grew up to have high regards and love for their mothers, because the mothers focused on ‘quality’ time more than ‘quantity’.
The Better India, June 8, 2019
For A Lalitha, the responsibility of raising her four-month-old daughter was heavy. Married at the age of 15, Lalitha gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby in the September of 1937 when she was 18. Just four months later, the teenage-mother lost her husband.
Baby Syamala was now the responsibility of a single mother.
Heads shaved, a strictly restricted life and banishment from society, the life of a widow was a prolonged trauma that they had no choice but to endure. Although the practice of Sati was less prevalent in Madras (now Chennai) where Lalitha had lived, societal standards still prescribed an austere life of isolation and perpetual sorrow to the young widow.
Instead, the forward-thinking and courageous Lalitha decided to overthrow all existing, outdated norms and pursue engineering. A male-dominated field then, Lalitha had made a decision that would make her India’s first female engineer!
Lalitha, fifth in the line of seven siblings was born on 27th August 1919. Her family was a typical middle-class Telugu family where the brothers had gone ahead to become engineers and the sisters were restricted to basic education. As was prevalent in those times, Lalitha was married off at the age of 15. Her father, however, insisted that a marital life should not interfere with her education and ensured that his daughter studied till class 10.
A mother’s instincts that made history:
Lalitha’s story is just half a narrative if we don’t follow the journey of her daughter, Syamala Chenulu. Now settled in the USA, Syamala has fond memories of how her mother, an icon in the field of engineering, faced her challenges while raising her. Speaking to The Better India (TBI), Syamala says, “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.”
Medicine was quite a popular field for women in those times. However, medicine requires the professionals to be available round the clock and Lalitha did not want to fall into a profession that would require her to leave her baby in the middle of the night. She needed a typical 9 to 5 job that allowed the young mother to spend time with her beloved daughter.
Like her father, Pappu Subba Rao and her brothers, Lalitha chose to become an engineer.
Rao, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), University of Madras, spoke to KC Chacko, the Principal of the college and to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Both the officials were supportive of admitting a woman—a first in CEG’s history.
“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,” Syamala tells us.
A few months after Lalitha started her studies in 1940, she conveyed that though she was fine in the college, she was lonely in the hostel. Rao believed this was an opportunity to invite more women to follow his daughter’s path and advertised open admissions in CEG for women. Leelamma George and PK Thresia soon joined albeit for the civil engineering course.
“Both of them were juniors to my mother by a year. However, all three of them graduated together because the second world war was at its peak in 1944 and the university decided to cut down the engineering course by a few months,” Syamala explains.
A trailblazing engineer:
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.
Fun fact: CEG had to remove the word ‘He’ from their printed certificates and replace it with ‘She’ for Lalitha, Thresia and Leelamma when they graduated.
Rao invented Jelectromonium (an electrical musical instrument) as well as an electric flame producer and smokeless ovens. Lalitha had assisted him in these innovations. But within nine months of joining her father’s workshop, Lalitha started looking for other avenues and settled for a job in the Associated Electrical Industries in Kolkata.
Syamala explains, “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.”
In the years to come, Lalitha’s achievements were to be recognised at international platforms too. In 1964, for instance, she was invited to the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES) in New York. It was during this conference that her mother’s importance as a professional really dawned upon Syamala.
“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!”
Throughout her career as an engineer, Lalitha had made sure of two important things—that her daughter is raised by loving people and that her being a woman in a male-dominated world would never be an obstacle. While attending the New York conference, she had very famously said, “150 years ago, I would have been burned at the funeral pyre with my husband’s body.”
Fortunately for women in India, she went on to become a trailblazing electrical engineer, lighting up the way for others to follow.
Lalitha passed away at a young age of 60 years due to a brain aneurysm but the legacy she has left behind is a gift for generations to come.
Published: Dec 15,201807:15 AM by Merin James
September 18, 2018
The other commonality among the 30 engineers featured in the book is that they all graduated from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai (See photo above in this review). Chennai is thought to be more conservative than other metropolitan areas, but the earliest women engineers in India have been from this institution. We have all seen the pictures of the women engineers in Sarees working in ISRO celebrating the successful Mars mission. This book is the story of how it all started.The stories of these engineers is relevant not just for those interested in entering Engineering. If you want to do anything new – breaking new ground, fighting the odds and persevering to your goals – regardless of the gender, these are the stories to get inspired from. The author deserves kudos for bring us these.
3 October 2018
The book details Indian Women’s journey into Technology from the beginning i.e. 75 years ago.
These women pioneers’ lives sure has motivated several.
This book would now help motivate so many others, not just in India but also in Several conservative societies in the world, especially so in all developing and underdeveloped economies
Ms. Shanta Mohan needs to be thanked and complimented for this publication.
G Narayan Rao
October 20, 2018
So absorbing. It is always a reader’s delight when the contents of a book is well structured, well researched, and well-written. Good bowling/pitching, good batting, good fielding, and a knowledgeable commentator makes an enjoyable ballgame.
As an alumnus of CEG, I always wondered how these women pioneers felt in the then male-dominated institution. It is so gratifying to read they each had an illustrious engineering career. When I visited the CEG campus in 2016, it seemed so co-educational. One more proud feather in the cap of our visionary poet Bharathi who was w.a.a.a.y ahead of his time in every one of his passionate predictions.
October 8, 2018
October 3, 2018
October 22, 2018
October 22, 2018
As an alumna of CEG, I often wondered how the women ahead of me fared in their professional and personal lives. Further, it was nostalgic to read about the stories of my immediate seniors and hostel mates, Nalini Uhrig, Shantha Mohan, Radha Murthy and Rajeswari Mariappan.
Kudos to the author for documenting these stories for future generation to emulate. The stories of these extraordinary women is relevant to not just for those interested in entering Engineering or for just for women, but for anyone keen on making/breaking new ground, to reach one’s goals against all odds regardless of gender if one shows courage, determination, discipline and resilience just as these women did. This book should be a recommended book for school and community libraries.
22 October 2018
January 18, 2019
As a woman STEM professional whose mind has turned towards the history of feminism in India, I approached this book from a slightly different perspective. The exhaustive research done by Ms. Mohan does more than tell inspiring stories of individual women. Taken together, the stories shed light on an important time in Indian women’s history.
During the years just prior to Independence and soon after, India went through a renaissance. It was about questioning conservative ideas and discarding the ones that were seen as damaging. Some of the women profiled in this book came from families where fathers, and often also mothers and grandmothers (most of them illiterate), supported the education of their daughters. Usually, they did this despite the opposition of relatives, neighbors, and other community members. There was a great deal of risk and sacrifice, but the education of women was seen by these pioneers (families as well as individual women) as an unadulterated good — for the individuals, their families, their communities, and the nation.
The women students knew that a lot was riding on their shoulders and they made it their mission to make the most of the opportunities available to them, and to make the same available to the women who came after.
In hindsight, success seems inevitable. But, when in the trenches, it is not so. The profiles in this book bring out the truth of this observation. So, hats off to these foremothers of today’s Indian women engineers.
The photo attached to this review is of present-day women scientists who took India to space. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-38253471
One final note – the feminism a reader will encounter in this book is of a different nature than its better known Western counterpart. It is like Indian culture and worked well in Indian culture — adaptive, determined, and less confrontational.
Anyone who has an interest in how social change started and how it succeeded in India will enjoy reading this book.