“ 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.”
–Benjamin Jowett to Cornelia Sorabji
In England, all barristers must belong to one of four associations, known as Inns. There are four inns in all- Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Outside the Lincoln Inn lies the statue of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer.
Educated in law in the UK, Ms Sorabji, long after her birth year of 1866, continues to have an unmatched legacy, inspiring and paving the path for numerous women in India.
Cornelia Sorabji- Early Life and Education
Born on 15th November 1866 in Nashik, Cornelia was the one among 9 children of Reverend Sorabji and Francine Ford. Cornelia was born in a Christian household. The good Reverend was a Zorastrian who had converted to Christianity and Francine Ford was a Hindu , raised by Christian missionaries.
While her parents encouraged all of their daughters to attend college, it was only Cornelia who first got accepted to Deccan college, affiliated to Bombay University. The first female student of the University, her nephew recalls how “doors were slammed shut” on his aunt’s face to prevent her from attending lectures.
Fast forward 6 years later and Cornelia graduated in English literature, standing first in her class. At that time, it was a custom for the first rankers to get a chance to go to the UK to study. However,she was denied this opportunity simply because she was a woman.
Not one to give up easily, Cornelia wrote to the National Indian Association asking for help regarding funds to help her education.
The National Indian Association was a society founded to aid women’s education in India. Initially founded in Bristol, there were soon branches of this association in India and in the UK. The London branch was founded by Charlotte and Elizabeth Manning. It is with Elizabeth Manning that Cornelia would stay in London.
After Cornelia’s letter, Mary Hobhouse (wife of politician Arthur Hobhouse) , Florence Nightingale and various women raised funds for her scholarship and in 1889 Cornelia arrived in Oxford. There, she enrolled in Somerville College, which would be her home for the next 2 years.
Studying at Oxford
At Sommerville, Cornelia was initially not allowed to study law. Benjamin Jowett, whose quote starts the article, was instrumental in helping Cornelia pursue law. He arranged for her to study the subject and made efforts to allow her to sit for her BCL exam. BCL refers to the Bachelor of Civil Laws, which was what Cornelia started pursuing in Sommerville. In two years, Cornelia passed her examination and became the first woman to graduate in law from Oxford University. It is important to note that BCL was a postgraduate degree. However, she was not awarded a degree at that time.
In the UK, she worked for a year in a firm called “Lee and Pemberton”. Later, she returned to India.
Return to India and later life.
Cornelia returned to India and later decided to complete her undergraduate degree in law. She finished her LLB from the University of Mumbai, at that time – the Bombay University.
However, even with her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in law, she was not allowed to appear before a judge on account of her being a woman.
She worked for some time with her brother in Allahabad but later turned over a new leaf.
Cornelia now started working on behalf of various women who were in purdah- meaning they had to observe total seclusion. She performed legal work on their behalf and turned her attention to social work.
She now started persuading the British that they needed to have a woman legal advisor for Indian women and secluded women too. Ultimately, in 1904, she was appointed by the British Government to be an advisor to the government regarding women in the North Eastern part.
Cornelia now began to help so many women who had no idea of the law. She continued this for 18 years and was awarded the Kaiser I Hind medal for her work in 1907. The kaiser i Hind medal was given to any person who “had distinguished themselves in any service”.
In between , from 1920’s onwards, Oxford finally allowed women to get their degrees and in the year 1922, Cornelia was finally called to the bar- the Lincoln’s Inn in London. However, she returned back to India.
In 1924, after women were allowed to become barristers, Cornelia enrolled herself at the Calcutta High Court. Nonetheless, she still had to face a lot of bias and confined herself to preparing opinions on cases but not pleading.
Cornelia retired from her practice in 1929 and went to England. She permanently settled there and died in 1954, having lived a life which would inspire women for generations.
My thoughts on Cornelia Sorabji
Ms. Cornelia Sorabji was an absolutely amazing and fantastic woman. Her personality shines through the work she did and the life she lived. Even while browsing across her photographs, one can see a very strong and brave woman staring back at them.
Cornelia’s story represents the grit and determination which is actually innate in all women, but is sometimes hidden due to some reason or another. Her determination, her never give up attitude and her commitment to her work ultimately made her the personality that she is today. Perhaps , however, if she were a man, she would not have to go through anything that she went through.
Nonetheless, Cornelia emerged on the top, working hard to help women everywhere. She was indeed a strong woman. I would like to end the article with a quote which very perfectly describes MS Sorabji’s personality-
“We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free.” – Kavita Ramdas
Image Source: Timesnext
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