by Maia Gibb
Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first female barrister in India, the first female graduate of Bombay University, and the first woman to practice law in both India and England. Her life is easily described as a series of firsts that she earned through a relentless battle against gender and racial bias.
Born into a Parsi Christian family with close ties to the British Empire, Sorabji’s education was encouraged from early on. Her mother, Francia Ford, was an advocate for the education of women, starting her own girls’ school and advising local women on their inheritance and property rights. These early experiences were undoubtedly impactful for Sorabji as she later came to focus her career on a similar area. Not without struggle, she became the first female graduate of Bombay University, allegedly topping the year in final degree examinations. There was a scholarship to study further in England available for the person who was first in the examinations, but it was revoked on the discovery by the board that Sorabji was a woman. Wishing to pursue her dreams of a legal career, she instead wrote to the National Indian Association asking for financial assistance in completing her education. The fund was very successful, with contributions from family and friends as well as influential figures, such as Florence Nightingale, sponsoring her attending the University of Oxford.
There is no doubt that Cornelia Sorabji loved her time at Oxford. In a letter to her mother, she wrote that “next to home there is no place like Somerville [College]”. At first arrival she reluctantly began studies in English Literature, after being repeatedly told that her aspirations to study law were impossible. However, utilising her resilient attitude and charismatic nature, she petitioned for a special consideration to allow her to read law. Once again, she was successful and was allowed to enter the Bachelor of Civil Laws exams in 1892. Tutors, such as A.V Dicey, offered to give her additional lectures to allow her to learn content that she had missed, and she even became the first female admitted as a reader to the Codrington Library of All Souls College. Sorabji enjoyed interactions with many high-profile members of academia and society in Oxford and was well liked by her peers at Somerville College, an all-female college at the time committed to including the excluded. However, it must be acknowledged that she still faced discrimination on a daily basis, both from her white peers and the Indian community due to her unusual familial situation. The progressively liberal nature of Oxford did not entirely separate it from the attitudes of Victorian Britain.
After completing her studies, Sorabji returned to India to begin her work on gender inequality. She became involved in promoting women’s rights in the National Council for Women in India, the Federation of University Women, and the Bengal League of Social Service for Women. Her philosophy was that education was essential in promoting social change, believing that the suffrage movement would not succeed until the majority of illiterate women had access to it. Her ideas for social change were not for a wholesale imposition of British laws, but rather modernisations of Hindu laws that gave equality to the vulnerable.
Sorabji was heavily involved with increasing legal rights of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. These women often owned considerable property but had no access to the necessary, yet all-male, legal world to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents, but was unable to actually defend them in court due to the law barring women from holding professional standing in court. In order to remedy this, Sorabji presented herself for the relevant exams to become a barrister in India 1897 and 1899, but was not recognised until almost two decades later, when she became India’s first female barrister.
Until then, Sorabji continued her fight for gender equality tactically, launching a petition to the Indian Office to provide a legal female advisor to represent only women and minors in provincial courts. She was successful in this pursuit, and appointed to the new role of Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal. Due to the demand for such representation, her work expanded into Bihar, Orissa and Assam, and she travelled extensively with very minimal pay that did not even allow her expenses for a clerk. In her 20 years of, it is estimated that she helped over 600 women and minors. However, gender bias prevented her from accessing her full potential at every turn. After the legal profession became open to women in 1924, Sorabji, despite having completed all relevant qualifications, was confined to preparing opinions on cases rather than pleading them before court.
Much modern controversy surrounding Cornelia Sorabji - and perhaps the reason why she isn’t as well known - may be due to her political stance during the Indian Independence Movement. Her entire life had been involved with Britain and the British presence in India, from her adoptive British grandparents to her love of Oxford. Early in her career, Sorabji supported the campaign for Indian Independence, connecting women’s rights with India’s capacity for self-government. However, her views had changed significantly by the late 1920s, with Sorabji actively promoting support for the Empire and the British Raj. She believed that Mahatma Ghandi’s ideals of self-government were unworkable, and would only allow further Hindu dominance in India. Her beliefs on this subject lost her the support of the people she had committed her life to helping, and meant her accolades were actively ignored, rather than celebrated.
Despite this, Cornelia Sorabji deserves to be remembered for the boundaries she broke and her commitment to the cause of gender equality. She not only gained for herself unprecedented positions and opportunities, but gave other vulnerable women the legal representation to protect their rights. Sorabji did all this in the background of severe racial, religious and gender bias that pushed her back at every turn. Her resilience, tenacity, and selflessness should be celebrated just as much as her outstanding legal feats.
Maia Gibb is a Staff Writer for the OWLSS, and a proud member of Somerville College, Sorabji’s alma mater. Her interests include commercial law, technology and the interrelation of the two. Maia is also an active member of the Oxford University Law Society and the Oxford Women in Business Society. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.