Cornelia Sorabji was an Indian woman who achieved several notable firsts: the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practise law in India and Britain.
In 2012, her glory was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn, London. Google Celebrate Cornelia Sorabji’s 151st Birthday with doodle on 15 November, 2017.
Born in Nashik, she was one of nine children of Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and his wife, Francina Ford,who had been adopted and raised by a British couple.
Her father was a missionary and Sorabji claims that he was a key figure in convincing Bombay University to admit women to their degree programs.
Her mother helped to establish several girls’ schools in Poona (now Pune).
She spent her childhood initially in Belgaum and later in Pune. She received her education both at home and at mission schools.
She enrolled in Deccan College, and claims to have topped the Presidency in her final degree examination, which would have entitled her to a government scholarship to study further in England.
Sorabji arrived in England in 1889 and stayed with Manning and Hobhouse. In 1892, she was given special permission by Congregational Decree, due in large part to the petitions of her English friends, to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford, becoming the first woman to ever do so.
Upon returning to India in 1894, Sorabji became involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who, according to Hindu law, were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world.
Sorabji began petitioning the India Office as early as 1902 to provide for a female legal advisor to represent women and minors in provincial courts. In 1904, she was appointed Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal and by 1907, due to the need for such representation, Sorabji was working in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam.
In 1924, the legal profession was opened to women in India, and Sorabji began practising in Kolkata. However, due to male bias and discrimination, she was confined to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court.
Sorabji retired from the high court in 1929, and settled in London, visiting India during the winters. She died at her London home, Northumberland House on Green Lanes in Manor House, London, on 6 July 1954.
In addition to her work as a social reformer and legal activist, Sorabji wrote a number of books, short stories and articles.Sorabji also wrote two autobiographical works entitled India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji (London: Nisbet & Co., 1934) and India Recalled (London: Nisbet & Co., 1936). It is acknowledged that she contributed to Queen Mary’s Book of India (1943), which had contributions from such authors as T. S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Sorabji also contributed to a number of periodicals, including The Asiatic Review, The Times Literary Supplement, Atlantic Monthly, Calcutta Review, The Englishman, Macmillan’s Magazine, The Statesman and The Times.