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Cornelia Sorabji: India’s First Female Lawyer

Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 6th July, 2023 12 min read

Cornelia Sorabji: India’s First Female Lawyer

“If we want the women of the past to speak to the women of today, we must value protect and preserve their authentic voices”  —  Kate Mosse1

Today (06/07/2023) marks the 69th anniversary of the death of the inspirational Cornelia Sorabji. Born in 1866 in Nasik, India, Cornelia broke glass ceilings for women in India. Throughout her life she achieved a lot of major firsts: the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first woman to graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to be called to the English bar in 1923, and the first female lawyer in India.  

It has been said that Cornelia was inspired by her mother's work for women. Her mother, Francina Sorabji, was devoted to the cause of women's education and established many schools for girls in Pune in the Maharashtra state of modern India. Alongside her own work, Francina encouraged her seven daughters to pursue higher education and thus enter professions. 

Cornelia’s early education included a mix of homeschooling and attendance at mission schools. Her parents encouraged both her and her sisters to apply for degrees at Bombay University. Yet because they were female applicants they were rejected. Cornelia, however, was the only one of her sisters, and the only woman ever, to gain entrance into Deccan College. There, she was the top ranked student and gained a first class degree in English Literature. 

Students that ranked highly were eligible for a scholarship at Oxford University. Due to her gender, Cornelia was initially denied entrance. She therefore wrote to many prominent English women in Bombay and Poona for assistance. They helped raise funds to send her to Oxford and in 1889 she entered Oxford University's prestigious Somerville College to read Law. She not only became the first woman to read Law at Oxford, but the first Indian woman to study at a British university. 

Unfortunately, being a woman she faced many obstacles, namely the fact that she was not allowed to sit her exams with male students because “the London examiner refused to assess a woman”. Cornelia feared that this would make her degree count for less. She therefore appealed and was eventually allowed to sit the exams alongside male students. This was an enormous win and a step in the right direction in terms of gender equality within high education. In 1892 Cornelia became the first woman, the first South Asian woman in fact, to pass the Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL) examinations. Despite passing the examinations with flying colours she was not awarded her degree, as women were not allowed to register as advocates.  

“Just imagine how he must have felt in that examination hall —  the only woman allowed to be there thanks to a special dispensation —   surrounded by male students and male invigilators, many of whom disapproved of her presence."  — Kate Mosse2

Upon her return to India in 1894 she embarked upon a mission to help the purdanasheen women —  women who are veiled at all times and forbidden to talk to men. Cornelia became involved in social and advisory work on behalf of these women and wished to be their legal voice. Unfortunately, however, she could not defend them in court as women were not allowed to hold professional positions in the Indian legal system. Cornelia was only given permission to enter pleas on their behalf to British agents.

Although Cornelia was not recognised as a barrister until 1923, when the law forbidding women from entering the legal professions was dissolved, she continued her studies. In 1897 she gained her LLB from Bombay University and in 1899 she passed the pleaders exam of Allahabad Hight Court. Still driven by her desire to help the purdanasheen women, in 1902 she began petitioning the India Office, pressing it to provide a female legal advisor for women in provincial courts. By 1904 she was appointed Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal and by 1907 she was also assisting women in the Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Assam provinces. Throughout her legal career she fought for the rights of women and children. She also fought against child marriages and for the rights of child widows. 

She helped over 600 women and children fight legal battles throughout her career. 

In 1920 Oxford University finally began awarding degrees to women and the English Bar allowed women to practice law. Nearly 30 years after passing her examinations Cornelia travelled back to Britain to accept her degree. In 1922 she was called to the bar and became the first woman to practice law in Britain. By 1924 India had opened up the legal profession to women and, upon travelling back to Calcutta, Cornelia enrolled as a barrister at the Hight Court, thereby attaining the prestigious position as the first woman to practice law in India. After retiring in 1929 she moved to London where she spent the rest of her life.

British Online Archives hosts a number of primary sources which cover over 1000 years of world history. We are currently publishing a group of collections that contain material from nine of The Illustrated London News’ sister collections. The publications we have in our digital archive include: The Graphic, The Sketch, The Sphere, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated War News, Britannia and Eve, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic and London Life.

These titles cover a wide variety of topics; from high society in the late Victorian era, to the World Wars; from international sports, to the cultural milieu of Britain’s ‘Swinging Sixties’. These collections contain near-endless material that will appeal to all historical interests; from those interested in social, cultural and political history, to those wishing to explore gender and colonial history. Within our collections prominent people are mentioned frequently. Cornelia Sorabji is no different.


Figure One: The Graphic, 6th August, 1904.

On 2nd January, 1897, The Graphic published a section titled "Some January Reviews". This discussed some topical news of the month throughout Britain and its colonies. The article references newspapers in South Africa and surveys arbitration in the colonies. It also touched upon the topic of women studying at Oxford. It would seem, according to the piece, that women at Oxford were "not so well known as those at Cambridge". The article then discusses the accomplishments of Cornelia:  

“An Indian girl, Miss Cornelia Sorabji, is now practicing as a lawyer in Bombay. She is the only B.C.L of her sex and was admitted to that degree because she was already B.A. of another University, namely, Bombay.”3

Cornelia appeared in The Graphic once again in an article published on 6th August, 1904 (Figure One). In the “Our Portraits” section, which included portraits and short descriptions of prominent people, a picture of Cornelia is accompanied by a synopsis of her career: 

“Miss Cornelia Sorabji has been appointed by the Bengal Government as legal advisor to the Purdahnashin, or women kept in zenanas of the Court of Wards. The appointment is made in connection with the scheme proposed by Miss Sorabji to the India Office for providing Purdah ladies with qualified legal assistance in the administration of their estates.”4

Figure Two: The Sphere, 30th July, 1904. Similarly, in an edition of The Sphere published on 30th July, 1904 (Figure Two) Cornelia is dubbed as one of the "Three Notable Figures of The Week” alongside figures such as Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli. Under her portrait the caption reads “an Indian woman lawyer”.5 This is followed by a description of her efforts in providing “purdah ladies with qualified legal advice”. 

Figure Three: The Sphere, 3rd July, 1909. 
An issue of The Sphere published on 3rd July, 1909 also praised Cornelia’s work (Figure Three). The “Woman’s Sphere and Interests” supplement highlights the “many honours and distinctions” that had been “bestowed on women” during the past week. It goes on to highlight how Miss Cornelia Sorabji “the well-known Indian woman barristers” had been “awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal” by King Edward VII.6 


References to Cornelia in the ILN's sister publications is noteworthy: the fact that a woman, and what is more, a woman of colour, was deemed as notable figure of the week alongside men in these popular publications  — publications that were aimed at British high society  — is inspirational. Significantly, The Sphere reflected a patriotic and staunchly pro-establishment position, so the fact that a woman of colour was not only mentioned, but praised for her work in a time when educated women (and especially women of colour) were often shunned, is remarkable. As a South Asian woman, Cornelia’s admission to university and her subsequent work as a lawyer meant that she was not only resisting patriarchal constraints, but also cultural and racial constraints in order to take control of her own personal narrative. 

Cornelia is therefore an inspiration to all women, but especially to South Asian women who continue to fight for equal rights. South Asian women, including the South Asian diaspora, have struggled with sexual and cultural limitations for generations. In recent decades, South Asian culture has admittedly underwent modernisation with regard to the concept of equality. For example, women working or gaining an education is now deemed acceptable by the majority. In some cases, however, cultural norms and practices still dictate a woman's place and unfortunately men still retain dominance in many circumstances. This is especially the case in relation to a woman's sexuality and the lack of a voice that she has when it comes to sexual assault. It is quite remarkable, when you think about it, that Cornelia became the first female laywer in India and was thus able to provide a legal voice for Indian women, given the challenges she faced within that society. She demonstrated how Indian women are not merely passive, but, rather, are able to take control of their own narratives; that they too are entitled to legal and educational rights. 

Cornelia passed away in 1957 at the age of 87. Today, on the anniversary of her death, it is important to acknowledge her work and legacy. History is all about seeking an understanding of the past and how it has shaped our existence. It is thus important that influential people of colour and their histories, Cornelia being an inspirational case in point, are more widely acknowledged and celebrated. Teaching students about influential South Asian, African, or Caribbean historical figures should be an important dimension of our education system. This is not only crucial in terms of developing a sense of racial awareness, but its is also important for young people to see how individuals in history, individuals that look like them or came from the same background, shaped the world we live in today.

If the primary sources featured within this article are of interest to you, you can have a closer look at them here.

Footnotes 

  1. Kate Mosse, Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World, (London: Mantle, 2022), 95. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Graphic, 2nd January, 1897, available at British Online Archives. 
  4. The Graphic, 6th August, 1904, available at British Online Archives. 
  5. The Sphere. 30th July, 1904, available at British Online Archives. 
  6. The Sphere, 3rd July, 1909, available at  British Online Archives. 


Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.


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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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