Cornelia Sorabji

Published 3rd July 2014
Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to ever sit the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University.

Born in Bengal in 1866, Cornelia achieved the unfathomable, becoming the first woman to practice law in both India and Britain. Coming from a large family, her mother strove widely for the education of girls in India, whilst her father campaigned for his daughters to be allowed to attend Bombay University. Despite the rejection of her sisters on the basis that no woman had ever been to university, Cornelia became the first success, and matriculated at the age of 16. She came out top of her college at English literature, an achievement which would certainly have merited a scholarship to study in England, had she been male. As it was, this was refused to her, but, upon hearing her story, a group of British women, including Florence Nightingale, created a scholarship for her out of their own pockets. By the time she arrived in Oxford, she was something of a celebrity. Having passed her Law examination (the sitting of which was a struggle in itself, due to the enormous amount of resistance with which her desire to study Law over English literature was met) Cornelia spent a year with a solicitors firm in London, becoming the first woman ever permitted to read in the Lincoln’s Inn Library along the way. Returning to India, she was resolved to use her experience to further the cause of women, but was met by another sizeable hurdle: the Chief Justice in Bombay explicitly instructed solicitors not to hire a woman.

With little option, Cornelia instead became a lawyer for the Maharajas, who were open to accepting the help of women. This, however, was similarly fruitless, with the triviality and absurdity of the cases awarded to her causing her to quit; in one such case she was ordered to defend an elephant, against the Maharaja himself. The judge presiding the case? Also the Maharaja. Cornelia won the case without having to say a word, because the Maharaja’s dog seemed to like her. Certainly this level of frivolity was beneath the standing of an Oxford postgraduate.

After 5 years of trying to become a barrister, Cornelia therefore changed tact. She wished to become an advisor to the British Government on the state of the secluded women of India, some of whom were married off in early childhood and, from this point, were not permitted to speak to any man other than their husband. They lived lives of absolute exclusion, with no access to education, but, paradoxically, were often made greatly wealthy, put in charge of huge estates if their husbands had died. This would put them in great danger, as there was little some men would stop at in their request to acquire these assets for themselves. Their lack of knowledge of the law, coupled with the prohibition of their meeting with a (male) lawyer, resulted in an impossible conundrum for these women. Cornelia spent five years, both in England and in India, trying to secure the position of legal advisor to them. In 1904, she was finally successful. For many years, Cornelia protected the rights of these women, exercising her expertise in inheritance, adoption and dispute resolution, whilst promoting education and the amendment of, often draconian, legislation.

By 1924, women were officially permitted to practice law in India, so, despite having been called to the English bar in 1923, Cornelia set up a practice in Calcutta. Predictably, this was not the end of Cornelia’s struggle, as, although men did not mind taking the advice of a woman, they certainly would not stand being beaten by one in the courtroom. Therefore, she was once again confined to the legal peripheries, only preparing cases, never performing them. Cornelia retired in 1929, and moved to London, where she died in 1954.

Cornelia’s struggle on the behalf of womankind was a product of her sheer determination, and the number of lives that she bettered, whether directly or indirectly, would be impossible to quantify. What can be determined with certainty, though, is that Cornelia Sorabji was a true pioneer, and has earned her place among the most inspirational women in history.