University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
Cornelia Sorabji (15 November 1866 – 6 July 1954) was the first woman Qualified attorney in India in 1896.
She was an Indian woman who was the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University and the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain. In 2012, a bust of her was unveiled at Lincoln's Inn, London. A Google Doodle celebrated her 151st birthday on 15 November 2017.
Born in Devlali to a Parsi, she was one of nine children, and was named in honour of Lady Cornelia Maria Darling Ford, her adoptive grandmother. Her father, the Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, was a Christian missionary, and Sorabji believed that he had been a key figure in convincing Bombay University to admit women to its degree programs. Her mother, Francina Ford, had been adopted at the age of twelve and brought up by a British couple, and helped to establish several girls' schools in Poona (now Pune). Due in part to her influential social position, Ford was often consulted by local women on inheritance and property rights. Many of Sorabji's later educational and career decisions would be heavily influenced by her mother. Cornelia Sorabji had five surviving sisters and a brother, and two more brothers that died in infancy. 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. According to Sorabji, she was denied the scholarship, and instead took up a temporary position as a professor of English at a men's college in Gujarat. After becoming the first female graduate of Bombay University, Sorabji wrote in 1888 to the National Indian Association for assistance in completing her education. This was championed by Mary Hobhouse (whose husband Arthur was a member of the Council of India) and Adelaide Manning, who contributed funds, as did Florence Nightingale, Sir William Wedderburn and others. 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 post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford, becoming the first woman to ever do so. Sorabji was the first woman to be admitted as a reader to the Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford, at Sir William Anson's invitation in 1890.
Upon returning to India in 1894, Sorabji got involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. Hoping to remedy this situation, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader's examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923. 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 the next 20 years of service, it is estimated that Sorabji helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge. She would later write about many of these cases in her work Between the Twilights and her two autobiographies. 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 home, Northumberland House on Green Lanes in Manor House, London, on 6 July 1954, aged 87.
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