Tamil Nadu’s first women’s college marches on

On July 14, 1914, the Madras College for Women, which would be rechristened the Queen Mary’s College for Women three years later, began functioning at its present location on the Marina beach front

August 25, 2022 10:20 pm | Updated August 26, 2022 08:20 am IST

Centre of empowerment: Governor Lord Pentland played a crucial role in starting the college. 

Centre of empowerment: Governor Lord Pentland played a crucial role in starting the college.  | Photo Credit: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

In 1913, when T. Nallamuthu Ramamurthi, a student of P.T. School in Madras, read out her essay on the need for a women’s college, she did not know her dream would come true the very next year.

“A very bold and interesting suggestion,” commented a member of the Madras Governor’s Executive Council, present at the function. Recollecting the incident for the book A child widow’s story, a biography on Sister Subbalakshmi written by Monica Felton, Ramamurthi said the member had asked the students wishing to study in such a college to raise their hands.

All the 17 girls in her classroom did. “I have never been able to find out whether at that time the government had already decided to open a women’s college or whether it was the enthusiasm we showed that influenced them,” she was quoted as saying.

On July 14, 1914, the Madras College for Women, which would be rechristened the Queen Mary’s College for Women (QMC) three years later, began functioning at its present location on the Marina beach front in an old building with nearly 40 students. It was the first college for women to come up in Madras Presidency. Interestingly, Ramamurthi, an alumna of the college, served as its first Indian Principal from 1946 to 1950.

Old records indicate that Lord Pentland, the then Governor of Madras, played a crucial role in starting the college. “Lord Pentland took a great interest in Queen Mary’s College, for the opening of which he was primarily responsible,” said Dorothy De la Hey, the founder-principal, in a book on Pentland brought out by Lady Pentland.

She recollected in the book that while a joint committee of Christian missions was also planning to start a women’s college in Madras, Lord Pentland felt the “upper-rank” Hindu families, who held orthodox opinions, would be more comfortable sending their girls to a government college. The college started by the Christian missions was the Women’s Christian College, opened in 1915.

QMC began functioning at Capper House, built by Lt. Col. Francis Capper as his residence, which later became a hotel. This building and the adjacent Beach House and Sankara Iyer House were bought soon. In the next few years, the college got three buildings — the Pentland block, the Jeypore block and the Stone block.

In the initial years, when the college was developing its infrastructure, students who wanted to study science used the nearby Presidency College. The government arranged ‘ jutka’ rides for QMC students to commute to Presidency College for specific periods of the day.

While Pentland played a major role in starting the college, it was De La Hey, who moulded it into a fine institution in its early phase. She served as the Principal from 1914 to 1935. She flew down from the U.K. to attend QMC’s golden jubilee celebrations in 1964. In an interview to The Hindu then, she recollected how the tutorial system in which one faculty member was made responsible for 30 students yielded good dividends.

Over the years, the college played an important role in women’s education and produced many notable alumni. However, the very existence of the college on its heritage campus was threatened when the Tamil Nadu government, led by former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, decided to demolish the institution for constructing a new Secretariat.

The decision resulted in unprecedented mass protests by the students and the alumni, supported by political parties including the DMK. (Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, then an MLA in the Opposition, was arrested and jailed after he met the girls during the protest.) The spirited protests and interventions forced the government to withdraw its decision.

A key issue faced by the college has been the maintenance of the old buildings. The Capper House was unfortunately razed because it was dilapidated, and a new administrative building was built in its place.

The Beach House and Sankara Iyer House, which are not in use, are in ruins. Thanks to the recent visit of Mr. Stalin to the college, the rest of the buildings and the campus sport a new look.

The college has more than 5,000 students in 23 undergraduate programmes, 18 postgraduate programmes and 12 research departments, according to B. Uma Maheswari, Principal, QMC. The majority of the students came from underprivileged sections.

Ms. Maheswari, who began her teaching career in the college in the early 90s and returned as Principal in 2020, said that though the students today had wider opportunities, there was a need to focus on their skill development.

In this regard, the college has launched many initiatives, apart from the State government’s ‘Naan Mudhalvan Scheme’. A recent incident, in which a bright student who lost her parents could not join a skill development programme after college hours as she was dependent on an income from a part-time job, has led to the faculty members launching a ‘helping hand’ project to pool in money to help such students.

Compared to 42,000 applications last year, the college has received 53,000 applications for 1,400 undergraduate seats this year. The Principal attributed the increase to the 47th rank it secured in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). “We are inheritors of a great legacy and heritage. We want to take the college to greater heights worthy of its legacy,” she said.

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