#Sepia Stories

Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female barrister

Our popular ‘back to history’ series is here again. This feature on Sepia Stories is on India’s first female barrister Cornelia Sorabji. The laws in the country were such that they wouldn’t permit her to be called or declared a barrister until 1923. The law then didn’t permit women in what was reserved as a male bastion. Sorabji has many firsts to her credit including being the first female lawyer to pass out of Bombay University and the first to read at Oxford University.

Born to Reverend Sorabji, a Parsi, and his wife, Francina Ford (a Parsi, adopted and raised by a British couple), Cornelia was one of the nine children in the Sorabji household. She spent her childhood initially in Belgaum and later in Pune. She received her education both at home and at mission schools. She then joined Deccan College, and reports say she topped the Presidency in her final degree examination. This 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.

Cornelia had many firsts to her credit. Perhaps she was the reason we have women practising in the legal fraternity today in India. She was a women’s rights activist and championed for independence of women. Her mother, Francina Ford promoted women’s education actively and this had an impact on Cornelia. Francina established schools for girls in Pune, then known as Poona.

Reverend Sorabji was keen on his daughter’s studying but he didn’t find much support in the Universities. At Bombay University, the authorities refused admission on the grounds that “no woman had ever been to university.” Sorabji was convinced and he persisted. Cornelia was finally admitted and she passed out at the age of 16.

After her matriculation, she urged her friends in England to petition for her to get into law at Oxford.She did take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford, becoming the first woman to ever do so.