National Engineers Day, celebrated annually on September 15, commemorates the birth anniversary of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, an eminent engineer and former diwan of the Kingdom of Mysore. This day serves as an opportunity to celebrate engineers across India and recognize their invaluable contributions to the country’s development. On this occasion, we delve into the remarkable story of Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, the first Indian woman engineer, who defied societal norms and paved the way for women in engineering.
Born in 1919 to 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 limited her sisters to primary education. Despite her marriage at the age of 15, Lalitha’s father had a strong belief in education and ensured that 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. the age of 18 years.
Faced with societal expectations that often demanded isolation and perpetual sorrow from widows, Lalitha chose a different path. Rather than conform to these norms, she decided to pursue a career in engineering, a field largely dominated by men. With the unwavering support of her father, who was a professor, Lalitha started her educational journey at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG).
Remarkably, she was the only woman in the university, but the university authorities took steps to ensure her comfort and safety by providing separate accommodation.
Lalitha’s daughter, Syamala Chenulu, who now lives in the United States, said students at her mother’s university supported and challenged the stereotypes of the time. Despite the initial loneliness, Lalitha’s determination soon led to the inclusion of more women in the university, with Leelamma George and PK Thresia joining civil engineering courses.
In her early 20s, Lalitha worked at several organizations, including the Central Standard Organization, Associated Electrical Industries and the Indian Standards Institution. She has even contributed to technical projects in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh as a consultant for the United Nations.
In addition to her technical achievements, Lalitha was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. She firmly believed in equal access to education and employment for women, leaving a lasting legacy of empowerment.