The First Woman Lawyer in India: Cornelia Sorabji

A student of Somerville Hall (as it was called from its foundation in 1879 until it became Somerville College in 1894) Sorabji was the first woman to graduate from the University of Bombay, and the first woman and the first Indian to read for the BCL in Oxford. Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and vice chancellor, served as a mentor and introduced a resolution in Congregation to enable her to sit the BCL exams with the other students in the Examination Schools.” – University of Oxford, Alumna Profile for Cornelia Sorabji and holding the title of being the First Woman Lawyer in India

Cornelia Sorabji

At a time when fighting for the women’s rights meant actually fighting to be considered as equal participants in society and not just ornamental additions to the patriarchal society, Cornelia Sorabji overcame traditional restrictions to become the first in many disciplines.

She was the first female graduate from the Bombay University. She was the first woman, and also the first Indian woman, to study law at the prestigious Oxford University. In fact, she was the first Indian woman to study in England as none other before her had been able to do so.  

Cornelia Sorabji idol

While she might be a much less talked about persona in this country, she is remembered still in the UK. In 2017, on her 151st birth anniversary, a bust of hers was unveiled at Lincoln’s Inn, the High Court Complex in London by lawyers in the UK. This was done as a mark of respect for the first woman in that country to practice law.

Family Background

Cornelia Sorabji was born on 15th November 1866 in Nashik which was a part of British India. She was one of the ten children and was named after her adoptive grandmother, Lady Cornelia Maria Darling Ford. Her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, was a Christian missionary from Zoroastrianism. Sorabji held the view that her grandmother had a significant impact on Bombay University for accepting women into their degree programs.

Her mother, Francina Ford, was adopted at the age of twelve and was brought up in a British family. She has assisted in setting up several girls’ schools in Poona (now Pune) and she dedicated herself to the education of girls and helping the poor people in the community. Women’s rights and education was a cause championed by Cornelia Sorabji’s mother which inspired her to join the cause too.

Growing up in a family of 7 siblings, while she had to endure a lot of societal prejudices, she was remarkably well supported at her home. Her parents influenced and encouraged her and her siblings to aspire for leadership roles in education and social work.

Throughout her life, in her practice of law, she supported various women’s issues. As part of her practice and social work, she worked on behalf of the Purdanashins, women who were veiled and forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. As a solicitor, she prepared cases for women clients first in the Princely state of Kathiawar in Gujarat. A lot of the times she even charged no fees for her work.

Later in life she courted many controversies because of her political inclination favoring a British ruled India. She had also had spats with major Indian leaders of the time, including Gandhi, regarding these issues. However, today, almost 70 years after her passing, it is more important to take cognizance of the trail she blazed for women of the Raj and India. In that regard, at least, her contributions cannot be diluted.

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