When women won a fair place in CET

Chellamma Jacob with her daughter Jaya Joseph. Photo: Achuthsankar S. Nair   | Photo Credit: Achuthsankar S. Nair

In 1939 when the College of Engineering, Trivandrum (CET) started there were no women either as teachers or as students. Today the Director of Technical Education is a woman and so is the Principal of the college. Many faculty members and B.Tech students in the college are women. The change in the gender picture is in tune with the times. A gender audit of the University of Kerala conducted early this year reveals that except for the higher echelons of power, the University has a huge majority of women as employees and students. Of the 200-plus doctorates awarded last year, more than 50 per cent went to women. In the University Post-Graduates Departments, nearly 75 per cent of students are women.

The entry of women into higher education institutions in the city was achieved much earlier than the establishment of the University of Travancore or CET. The College for Women was established in 1889, and gave women in the city representation in higher education. However, the story of CET was very different. There was nothing in the rules that prevented women from entering the portals of this college. However the decision of admission was entirely left to the Principal of the college. He could, without assigning any reason, accept or reject students in an interview and norms for the conduct of the interview were not codified and the Principal’s decision was final.

An Englishman Professor T.H. Mathewman was the first Principal of CET. His own country’s prestigious University of Cambridge gave entry to women as late as 1948. Women were allowed to study courses, sit for examinations, and have their results recorded from 1881, but they were not “admitted to the Degree of Bachelor of Arts”.

It was only in 1948 that women were made full members of the University of Cambridge, but women had to be in all-women colleges. All-men colleges in Cambridge began to admit women only between 1972 and 1988.

In the first year of the existence of CET, a woman from the city came forward to study engineering. She was Devi Leela Bai, who hailed from Poovalathu Veedu in Arasummoodu, a place close to the present campus of CET. She had completed her B.Sc in Mathematics. Admission to engineering required only an intermediate (current Plus Two) with physics, chemistry, and mathematics as subjects. So Leela Bai was actually over qualified. She walked into the engineering college office in the present PMG buildings to buy an application form for seeking admission. The clerk who sold the application form refused to issue a form to her as she was a woman and he was under instructions that no application forms were to be issued to women. The gates were shut before Leela Bai. She entered the government service and retired as a Deputy Collector in the Treasury Department.

A couples of decades later, things were not very different, if not worse. Chellamma Jacob who did her intermediate in physics, chemistry, and mathematics dreamt of being an engineer, after hearing about women from Travancore going to Madras [Chennai] and studying engineering and coming back into government service in Travancore.

Chellamma remembers that in school she was asked to write an essay on herself. She articulated her dream to emulate the women engineers of Travancore. In the Fifties, it was not only a meritorious pass in the intermediate alone that was required, but also an entrance examination for admission to engineering had to be passed and this involved questions in drawing and drafting. Even during those days, there were private agencies that coached students for the examination. Chellamma joined one of those private coaching centres and did well in the entrance examination. The interview had to be cleared, but with her good academic records and the pass in the entrance examination, Chellamma was confident of making it to CET. She did attend the interview and recalls that she did well, but in the end it did not make any difference, because the Principal M. V. Kesava Rao ended the interview by saying that everything was fine, but “you cannot be admitted as you are a woman”.

Keshava Rao was also a person who had worked in the United Kingdom but his exposure did not seem to have changed his attitude towards women. Chellamma went to the Government College for Women to study B.Sc. Mathematics and did her masters in English from the same college. She retired as the head of the Department of English in the University College.

During her stint as a teacher in Women’s College, Chellamma had a student called K. Gomathi who went on to earn the distinction of being the first woman student of CET. Chellamma still recalls her frustration when she was denied admission to CET. But in some way she feels compensated that her student entered the portals of the College. Chellamma’s daughter Jaya Joseph also graduated from CET in 1985.

In 1957, one of the first women students walked into CET (there were two students – K. Gomathi and Sumithra Ram Mohan, but it was Gomathi who graduated first from CET). The local newspapers carried the news that two women were admitted to CET. Around 400 students, all male, waited to receive them. Keshava Rao was still at the helm of affairs in CET.

First day in CET

Gomathi remembers her first day in the college, with almost all the students out on the verandahs in all floors of the building and greeting her with howls and whistles. She was scared, shaken and embarrassed, but braved it all. She sat in a corner of the class, alone on a bench.

She recalls that it was S. Krishnakumar (later an IAS officer and central minister), a senior, who first talked to her, to seek her vote for the student elections. Sumithra was married and did not regularly attend college due to her family commitments.

Gomathi has unpleasant memories of the first year in CET when she was denied a ladies’ waiting room or even a separate toilet. She wanted to do civil engineering, but switched to electrical engineering as the former required survey camp attendance in outstations, which lasted a few weeks, and with the gender insensitivity demonstrated by the college authorities, she feared it would be torturous.

Gomathi graduated in 1961 as the first woman engineering graduate from Kerala University (women from Kerala had earlier graduated from Guindy Engineering College in Chennai).

K.P.P. Pillai, one of her teachers in the final year, remembers that Gomathi was a hardworking student. Dr. Pillai who taught in CET for many years recalls that in the next batches there were seven students and thereafter the numbers started increasing.

K.A. Muraleedharan, a year senior to her in CET, became her life partner. Gomathi went on to become the first woman post-graduate in engineering and took her doctorate from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

She became a lecturer in her alma matter itself and became head of the department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering and retired as joint director of technical education in 1994. She was not only a popular teacher, but a great mentor to her students.

In CET, her name is synonymous with IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering), the largest professional society of engineers in the world. She was the faculty counsellor for IEEE for almost two decades and was honoured by the society more than once, with international awards for her leadership in IEEE’s CET activities. The cash prizes she received were donated to the IEEE branch itself to enable it to buy the costly IEEE journals, which in those days were very difficult for her students to get.

Dr. Gomathi currently enjoys her retired life, running a unique school for tiny tots and is passionate about painting. Of her two daughters, Girija Muraleedharan graduated from CET, while Saradha Muraleedharan is an IAS officer.

Gomathi feels happy that CET is no longer a men’s enclave but a place where women have a just place too.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 8:48:16 AM |

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