The only other woman to head the defence ministry was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, first in 1975 and again in 1980-82.
Madurai-born Sitharaman was earlier the commerce minister. She has a masters degree in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and has worked for consulting and auditing firm PwC, London, and briefly with BBC World Service.
An articulate politician, known for countering the opposition with facts, Sitharaman joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2008 and was nominated as the party spokesperson in 2010.
“Somebody who has come from a small town, grown into the party with all the support of the leadership, and if given such responsibility, it just makes you feel sometimes that cosmic grace is there. Otherwise it is impossible," Sitharaman had said after taking oath as defence minister in 2017.
As the defence minister, she is the second woman along with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in the vital cabinet committee on security or CCS, a point that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had underlined in his last speech of the 16th Lok Sabha. Modi leads the CCS with finance minister Arun Jaitely and home minister Rajnath Singh as the other members.
The political rise of Sitharaman has been meteoric. However, in the last one year she has faced a tough time because of allegations by the opposition on the pricing of Rafale fighter planes and also on defence modernisation.
The defence minister has, however, been straightforward in her responses. “The Bofors scam brought you down. The Rafale deal will bring Modi back to power," she had said, tearing into the opposition Congress during a debate in the Lok Sabha in January.
“Timely purchase of equipment should be the priority. We have to recognize the sense of urgency," she had said.
On Sunday, Sitharaman in an event in Bengaluru said the Modi government has been successful in tackling terror. She said other than in Jammu and Kashmir, the country has not seen terrorist activities since 2014.
Political analysts, however, feel that notwithstanding her quick growth and capability to articulate issues well, she needs to prove her mettle in electoral battles.
“She has a charismatic growth in politics but personally I believe, the success of a politician is gauged through popular following of electorates. Fighting elections, to my mind, is a better way to harness political skills," said Sanjay Kumar, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Come 2019 general elections, she may prove her critics wrong.