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Boss lady #4: CB Muthamma

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

First woman to join the Indian Civil Services

A slight shift from the econ-focused blogs I have put up so far — this one profiles a woman who took the Ministry of External Affairs to the Supreme Court for blatant gender-based discrimination in hiring and promotion policies. As a judge put it, the “masculine hubris” that haunted the department was seriously challenged by CB Muthamma.

CB Muthamma became the first woman to join the Indian Civil Services after she made it through the exam in 1948. Interestingly, I read recently that Nirupama Rao recounts that CBM was pretty hand-waivey about her status as the first female Indian diplomat saying “Someone’s got to be first — I was old enough to have been there first.

Now, CBM was born in Coorg. Her father was a forest service officer who passed away when she was 14. CBM was raised by a single mom along with three of her siblings. She went to school in Madikeri, and moved to Chennai for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies (the latter in English Literature).

After she cleared the UPSC board exams, she was asked to change her first preference for the foreign civil service during her interview. She refused and was ultimately given very low scores in the interview. Despite the setback, she ended up getting the highest score among everyone who made it to the foreign service list, and became India’s first female IFS officer in 1949.

When CBM joined the IFS she was had to sign the terrible undertaking that she may have to give up her job if she got married. “This was clearly against the Constitution, but in those early days, it did not occur to me to challenge that rule…there was an attitude of vengefulness on the part of the men — a feeling that should be kept in their places, and that they should be encouraged to leave,” she writes in an essay in her book, Slain by the System. As she writes, she didn’t challenge the IFS at that point, partly because she was just starting out and didn’t know better.

CBM’s first posting was at the Embassy in Paris after much deliberation. Interestingly, both Indian and international peers in these embassies had issues with working with a woman in their midst. After Paris, CBM worked in Rangoon, London, and various departments in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.

About two decades later, when CBM was denied for promotion to a Grade I level officer (the highest possible in the IFS) on dubious grounds of lack of “merit”, she challenged the following rule of the IFS in the Supreme Court, which stated that “a woman member of the service shall obtain the permission of the Government in writing before her marriage is solemnised. At any time after the marriage, a woman member of the Service may be required to resign from service, if the government is satisfied that her family and domestic commitments are likely to come in the way of the due and efficient discharge of her duties as a member of the service,” and Rule 18(4) “no married woman shall be entitled as of right to be appointed to the service.”

Though the government withdrew it’s judgement of CBM’s lack of merit eventually and ended up promoting her to Grade I even before the trial concluded, the Supreme Court’s final ruling in 1979 was important. It called for an overhaul of blatant discriminative policies in the recruitment processes of the Indian government on grounds of constitutionality. This case served as a legal precedent for women who joined the civil services after CBM, when they demanded equal treatment if deprived of the same.

In addition to Slain by the System, which documents her career long struggle with gender bias, she has also written a book The Essential Kodava Cookbook (2000), archiving lost recipes from Coorg. The coexistence of an obvious feminist with culinary interests soothed my often troubled soul, as I often naively worry that my love for cooking is me giving into gendered expectations and I should know better.


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