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Cornelia Sorabji: Who was India’s first female lawyer?

Trailblazing barrister overcame social adversity to help hundreds of unrepresented women

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 15 November 2017 12:30 GMT
Indian barrister Cornelia Sorabji making a radio broadcast
Indian barrister Cornelia Sorabji making a radio broadcast (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), India’s first female lawyer, on what would have been her 151st birthday.

This trailblazing barrister - born in Devlali, Nashik, then under British colonial rule - was also the first woman to graduate from Bombay University and to study law at Oxford when she was admitted in 1892, a milestone that predates the women’s suffrage movement in Britain.

Cornelia was one of nine children born to the Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and his wife Francina Ford, an Indian girl raised by British foster parents. An influential missionary, Cornelia’s father recognised her early academic prowess and was instrumental in convincing Bombay administrators to break with strict custom and allow her to enter Deccan College as a degree student.

Francina was herself an important proto-feminist figure, establishing a number of girls' schools in Pune and advising local women on property rights.

Cornelia duly completed her law degree with top honours in 1888 but was denied a scholarship that would have allowed her to study in England. Undeterred, she took a temporary teaching post at a men’s college in Gujarat and wrote to the National Indian Association appealing for funds to allow her to continue her education abroad.

The response was overwhelming. A key champion was Mary Hobhouse, wife of a prominent Council of India member, but Florence Nightingale, writer Adelaide Banning and Scottish politician Sir William Wedderburn were also among the many making significant donations to her cause.

Their endorsement finally enabled Cornelia to set sail for England and study at Somerville College, Oxford, making British history in the process.

Graduating two years later in 1894, she returned to India and became a specialist advocate for purdahnashins, women prohibited from communicating with men. Unable to represent them in court due to a blanket ban that would not be overturned until 1922, Cornelia nevertheless fought courageously for both the inheritance rights of these neglected women and her own as a professional.

She became a government legal adviser on the issue and won the right for purdahnashins to train as nurses. Cornelia was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1909 for her social reforming efforts on behalf of these women and other causes, not least her fearless opposition to orthodox Hindu attitudes to child marriage.

When the legal profession finally opened its doors to female lawyers in the 1920s, Sorabji opened her own practice in Kolkata but was even then denied the chance to make her pleas in person before the court, reduced to preparing arguments in absentia.

Cornelia Sorabji is thought to have helped over 600 client fight legal battles over the course of her career, no mean feat given the obstacles stacked against her by a deeply oppressive and conservative patriarchy and by a legal system that sought to impose alien Western values on India. A keen short story writer, her experiences are recounted in the book Between The Twilights (1908) and her two memoirs.

Cornelia Sorabji retired in 1929 and returned to England, living on Green Lanes near Manor House in north London until her death on 6 July 1954.

A brass bust was unveiled in her honour at Lincoln’s Inn, London’s judicial heartland, in 2012.

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