National Engineer’s Day, celebrated annually on September 15, commemorates the birth anniversary of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a distinguished engineer and former diwan of the Mysore kingdom. This day serves as an opportunity to honour engineers across India, recognizing their invaluable contributions to the nation’s development. On this occasion, we delve into the remarkable story of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, the first Indian female engineer, who defied societal norms and paved the way for women in the field of engineering.
Born in 1919 into a middle-class Telugu family in Chennai, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was the fifth of seven siblings. While her brothers pursued engineering careers, societal norms at the time restricted her sisters to basic education. Despite her marriage at the tender age of 15, Lalitha’s father held a strong belief in education and ensured she completed her studies up to class 10. However, her life took a challenging turn in 1937 when her husband passed away, leaving her a widow at the age of 18.
In the face of societal expectations that often demanded isolation and perpetual sorrow from widows, Lalitha chose a different path. Instead of conforming to these norms, she decided to pursue a career in engineering, a field largely dominated by men. With unwavering support from her father, who was a professor, Lalitha embarked on her educational journey at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG).
Remarkably, she was the only woman in the college, but college authorities took steps to ensure her comfort and safety, providing separate accommodation.
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Lalitha’s daughter, Syamala Chenulu, who now resides in the United States, shared that students at her mother’s college were supportive, challenging stereotypes of the era. Despite the initial solitude, Lalitha’s determination soon led to the inclusion of more women at the college, with Leelamma George and P. K. Thresia joining for civil engineering courses.
In her early twenties, Lalitha worked at various organizations, including the Central Standard Organisation, Associated Electrical Industries, and the Indian Standards Institution. She even contributed as a consultant to the United Nations on engineering projects in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Beyond her engineering achievements, Lalitha was a vocal advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. She staunchly believed in equal access to education and employment opportunities for women, leaving an enduring legacy of empowerment.