In 1923 Mithan Tata became the first woman called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn and the first practising Indian woman barrister. She would have been remarkable in any era, but for those times she was extraordinary. Mithan was born into a Parsi family in Maharashtra in 1898 and spent her childhood in different parts of India as her father moved his family wherever his work in the textile industry took him. By 1913 the family was living in Bombay where her father ran a large textile mill.
Mithan was sent to good schools and graduated from Elphinstone College with a first in Economics and was winner of the much coveted Cobden Club Medal. She and her mother, Herabai, were both passionate advocates of women’s rights. Herabai had met and been inspired by Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. (Princess Sophia, a prominent suffragette, was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter and lived in Britain with her exiled family, visiting India only occasionally).
In 1919 a Royal Commission in London was considering the future of India. Herebai took Mithan, then aged 21, to London where they both gave evidence on the need for women’s suffrage to be part of the Indian reforms. Following the Commission’s report, the British enabled provincial legislatures to allow women to vote, though the only one to do so immediately was Madras in 1921.
Mithan stayed on in London to do a master’s degree at LSE while simultaneously reading for the Bar. She and her mother took rooms in 16 Tavistock Square for the next four years. During this time she went on a speaking tour, lecturing on women’s rights with local suffrage leaders.
Once called to the Bar, she returned to India and enrolled in the Mumbai High Court. She was the first, and for some years the only, practising woman barrister. For reasons that are not clear (though there’s some suggestion that, as in the UK, the system did not enthusiastically embrace women) Mithan stopped practising after three years. She was appointed as a Justice of Peace and executive magistrate as well as a member of the committee on Parsi Marriage Act of 1865, which helped her to contribute to the amendment of the act that came to be known as the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act of 1936. Mithan was also a part-time Professor at the Mumbai Law College.
Mithan married Jamshed Sorab Lam, a lawyer and public notary in 1933. Their son, Sorab Lam, became a successful orthopaedic and trauma surgeon who practised and settled in this country. Mithan was very active for the rest of her life in women’s organisations and social work, such as the Matunga Labour Camp in one of the worst slums of Mumbai.
In 1947 Mithan was appointed the first woman Sheriff of Mumbai. She chaired the Women’s Committee set up for the Relief and Rehabilitation of Refugees from Pakistan. In 1962 her contribution to Indian society was recognised by the government awarding her the honour of the Padma Bhushan.