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She The First | Story of Grit: Cornelia Sorabji – India's First Female Lawyer

She was asked to defend an elephant when she wanted to fight for women. Here's how she paved way for women's rights.

Updated
Gender
6 min read

(This story was originally published on 20 December 2021. It is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark Women's Day.)

In pre-independent India, freedom and liberty were distant dreams for many Indian women.

They were trapped behind veils – not allowed to communicate with anyone apart from family members, dependent on British male lawyers to fight their legal cases, if they even had recourse to the courts. But one girl from Maharashtra fought for not just hers, but for every woman's rights.

She was denied her degree for nearly thirty years. Forced to do odd jobs in courts. She was once asked to defend an elephant when she wanted to fight for women and children. But, she persisted and became an icon for women everywhere.

This is a story of grit and determination. The story of Cornelia Sorabji – the first woman lawyer to practise in India and Britain. A pioneer of women's rights in India, Cornelia is a woman of many firsts.

Cornelia Sorabji

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

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First Woman Graduate From Mumbai University

Born on 15 November 1866 in Devlali, near Nashik, Cornelia had eight siblings. Her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, and mother Francina Ford (who was adopted and raised by a British couple), made sure all their children received English education, despite the disapproval of many in their society.

Francina established several mission schools for girls in Pune and often helped local women in matters of dispute. She was a big inspiration for Cornelia. After studying at these mission schools, Cornelia enrolled as the first woman student at Deccan College, Pune.

However, she had to face opposition from her peers and professors. Boys in her class would often slam classroom doors on her face to discourage her from attending classes. But she was determined.

Cornelia pursued Literature and graduated with a first class degree in 1888, becoming the first woman graduate from Mumbai University.

Bombay University: Late 1800s

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

First Indian to Study at a British University

Cornelia topped her class. But she was denied the Oxford scholarship that was usually given to the topper of the year. As a result, she wrote to some influential English women in Mumbai and Pune for assistance.

With their help, she travelled to England in 1889 and joined the prestigious Somerville College at Oxford University, becoming the first Indian woman to study at a British University and the first ever woman to study law at Oxford.

Cornelia at Somerville College (first student from the left, second row)

(Photo: Somervillage College/Altered by The Quint)

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Somerville College: early 1900s

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

First Woman to Pass Law From Oxford University, And The First Hurdle...

In 1892, Cornelia became the first woman to pass the prestigious Bachelor of Civil Law course from Oxford University. But Oxford withheld her degree because women were still not allowed to register as advocates.

Disheartened, she returned to India in 1894 but the situation back home was the same.

"My big responsibilities, as you call them, didn't blind me to the fact that a young woman, seeking to train as a lawyer to fit herself to help her fellow country-women in difficulties, was something very important indeed. It was a sign of something big. An omen perhaps too."
Mentor Benjamin Jowett to Cornelia Sorabji

But Cornelia Was Determined...

She wanted to help the purdanasheens – women who had to be behind veils at all times and were not allowed to talk to anyone apart from their families. Cornelia wasn't generally allowed to defend them in courts but was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf, before British lawyers.

In 1896, however, she became the first woman in the British Empire to plead before a British judge (in India), defending a murder accused – a case which she won.

Cornelia completed the LL.B course from Mumbai University in 1897 and passed the pleader's exam at the Allahabad High Court in 1899. She was still not recognised as a barrister and only allowed to do paperwork and enter pleas before male lawyers. But she didn't lose hope.

Allahabad High Court

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

First Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal

Cornelia was often mocked for her service, but she did not give up. Five years later, she was allowed to assist in some court cases. In 1904, she was appointed the first lady assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal.

The Court of Wards was a legal body created by the East India Company, to protect heirs who were minors and incapable of defending themselves or acting independently, and their estates.

Calcutta High Court: early 1900s

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

From 1907 onwards, she also assisted in cases in Bihar, Odisha and Assam. And over the next twenty years, she selflessly helped over 600 women and orphaned children fight legal battles, often pro bono.
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First Woman to Practise Law in Britain and India

Almost thirty years later, her perseverance was rewarded. Cornelia travelled to London once again, in 1920, to collect the degree that rightfully belonged to her.

Two years later, she was called to the London Bar and she became the first woman to practise law in Britain as well as India.

The Law Society, London

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

In 1924, when India opened its courtrooms for women, Cornelia returned to Calcutta and enrolled as a barrister at the High Court, becoming the first woman to do so.

Cornelia as a Barrister in court

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Cornelia Sorabji: A Pioneer of Women's Rights in India

And there's more to Cornelia. She was an author, social worker and a reformist who strongly voiced for the abolition of Sati and child marriage. She authored Love and Life beyond the Purdah, The Purdahnashin, Shubala – A Child-Mother, among others. She was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1909.

She gave up her Indian legal practice in 1929 and completely devoted herself to social work. Two years later, she moved to London. Cornelia passed away on 6 July 1954 at the age of 88.

Cornelia Sorabji

(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

In 2012, a bust of her was unveiled in London. On her 150th birth anniversary, in 2016, Somerville College launched the Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship in Law. A Google doodle was also created to celebrate her 151st birthday on 15 November 2017.

Cornelia paved the way for women's rights in India and was an inspiration for women lawyers across the world. And for that, she'll be remembered forever.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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