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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Transmissions of Power: A Lalitha’s Road to Becoming India’s First Woman Engineer.

In 1919, when Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was born in what was then the city of Madras, southern India lay at the intersection of a tantalizing and complex array of world historical forces, each tugging in its own direction, with modernizers and traditionalists, British colonial officials and emerging Indian nationalists and administrators each advocating their vision for what 20th Century India would become. For women in particular, the ebb and flow of that debate would have major ramifications for the opportunities available to them in the future, as the steady improvement in women’s rights in India gained over the course of the 19th century stood poised to either push through to a new and freer future or fall back to a tragedy laden past.


Lalitha’s story is an important thread in the fabric of women’s rights in 20th century India. When she was born, it was only ninety years since the British Raj had controversially banned the practice of ritual widow suicide, only sixty-three since widows were legally allowed to remarry (thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar), and only twenty eight years since the age of sexual consent had been raised by law from ten to twelve years of age. Each of those advances came in the face of steady opposition from traditionalists who argued against the changes as unwanted Western interference in sacred Hindu practices, and with the arrival of the Twentieth Century and its intendant expectation that independence lay just around the corner (an expectation that lay especially keenly in the air in 1919, as Indian soldiers returning from serving Great Britain in World War I reasonably expected, in recognition of their service, an expedited path to national independence which failed to materialize), the question loomed larger than ever, “What will become of women when independence is gained?”


If we’ve gone on for some time about the complicated web of influences existent in the India of 1919, it’s because Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha was located directly at the center of that web. Her family spoke Telugu, though Tamil was the majority language in Madras at the time. Her father was an engineer, and more than that was a professor of engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy, which was (and is) the oldest technical university in Asia, having been founded by the British in 1794 to meet the need for qualified surveyors in the Raj. He was progressive enough to see to it that Lalitha, the fifth of eight children, had a good education, but traditional enough that, when a marriage proposal was extended, it was accepted, and in 1934, at the age of fifteen, she was married, though on the condition that she still be permitted to finish her secondary school degree.


In 1937, Lalitha gave birth to a daughter, Symala, and four months later, her husband was dead. In many of the figures we have seen so far in the Archive, the passing of their husband has often meant an opportunity for the widow to achieve her full potential, possessing her husband’s old resources, and no further obligations to produce and care for a string of children. In early 20th century India, however, the position of a widow was culturally quite different. To many traditionalists, the state of widowhood was equated with one of “living death” - the widow still lived and breathed, but was subordinate to family members, who often considered her a burden and drag on the familial finances. Often uneducated, considered beneath recognition, and facing down the prospect of a whole lifetime of joylessness ahead of them, it was small wonder that Indian widows in the 19th century suffered some of the highest suicide rates on the planet. After 1857, widows were finally allowed to remarry, and thereby to escape the decades of shuffling anonymity that were the fate of all too many girls whose older husbands died while they themselves were still in their early teens, but that practice was still frowned upon in many quarters as an act of disloyalty to the deceased.


Had she held to the expectations of the nineteenth century, after her widowhood in 1937, Lalitha would have kept her head down and devoted herself to raising her child, without any thought for what her life might become once that child was grown. Fortunately, however, her family had long since noticed her enthusiasm and gift for science, and gave her full support to pursue those passions and take up a career of her own. In 1939, after receiving her intermediate degree from Queen Mary’s College, Lalitha joined the College of Engineering, Guindy, where her father’s position as an electrical engineering professor allowed him to take her case to both the college president and British government, both of which signed off on her joining the student body.


She was joined in 1940 by two other women engineering students, PK Thressia and Leelamma George, and in a happy change from the story that we’re used to from the women’s battle to join medical colleges in Europe and the United States in the mid nineteenth century, which featured both threats of and actual violence perpetrated against the women attempting to earn an education, Lalitha, Leelamma, and Thressia were accepted and welcomed by the male students on campus. Lalitha earned her degree in 1943, and started working for the Central Standards Organization of India in 1944, making her the nation’s first woman electrical engineer.



This posting put her a good distance from her home base, but was worth it, as her brother lived in the city, allowing her to drop off her daughter with her sister-in-law for the day while she was working, as inevitably the CSOI did not have anything approaching daycare facilities for its employees at the time. She remained in this employment until 1946, when she returned home to work with her father on his various electrical projects, including developing patents for a smokeless oven and an electronic musical instrument called a Jelectromonium, which I spent a solid hour trying to find more information on, but couldn’t, so if anybody out there has some knowledge to share, let me know because it could be an important addition to the pantheon of early electrical instruments, joining Cahill’s Telharmonium (1897), Theremin’s Theremin (1920), Trautwein’s Trautonium (1930), and Hammond’s Novachord (1930).


This was certainly interesting work, but didn’t precisely provide an independent livelihood, and so in 1948 she once again displaced herself a distance of some one thousand miles, to Calcutta, in order to work for Associated Electrical Industries. AEI was an English electrical company which had been founded in 1923 by combining the British Thomson-Houston Company (founded in 1886 but coming to prominence after merging with the Thomas Edison’s General Electric in 1892) and Metropolitan Vickers (originally British Westinghouse, founded in 1899, which was BTH’s primary rival in electrical generation and distribution).



For an electrical engineer, this was The Big Time. Lalitha suddenly found herself working as a design engineer in one of the world’s most pre-eminent electrical engineering companies, and took to the position with professionalism and ease, remaining at AEI for three decades, designing power transmission lines, troubleshooting substation layouts, and acting as intermediary between British manufacturers and Indian installation and service technicians.


Her position therefore put her in contact not only with the individuals who were undertaking the mammoth task of creating a unified electrical grid system for the nation, increasing electrical generation in India from 1,362 MW in 1947 to some 26,680 MW by the time of her retirement, but with engineers in England who came to know her rigor and dependability, characteristics which were rewarded in 1953 when the Council of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, voted her associate member status, which was increased to full member status in 1966. She was also the only Indian representative at the International Conference of Women Engineers, held in New York in 1964, and served as India’s representative at the 1967 Second International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists, held in Cambridge, proudly leading a delegation of six Indian women engineers to the proceedings.



Today, thanks to the steps first taken by Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, women make up some 41.7% of undergraduates in electrical engineering in India, a vast improvement over the situation in the United States, where, according to SWE data, women still only make up some 20% of engineering and computer science undergraduates. Because of the progressive support of her family, and the depth of her own interest in science, Lalitha was able to defy tradition and strike out on a new life for herself that brought her international recognition, and flipped the switch on an electric future that hundreds of thousands of women have made their own, to the great benefit of themselves, and the vast benefit of their nation.


FURTHER READING:

The hero behind the scenes in this story is Shantha Mohan, whose book Roots and Wings features a fascinating roster of women engineers in India, whose stories are largely being told for the first time thanks to Mohan’s original research. I can’t recommend it enough as exactly the sort of book that we need more of in the study of Women in STEM, fresh research unearthing truly unsung pioneers in their nations. It is great.



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