A lady of many firsts: Cornelia Sorabji
Today, the Google Doodle celebrates a woman of many firsts. First Indian female advocate, first female graduate from Bombay University and the first woman to study law at Oxford University – Cornelia Sorabji. The doodle pays homage to the lawyer, writer and social reformist on her 151st birth anniversary. She was one of the first women-rights reformer in India.
Cornelia was born in Nashik to a Parsi family in 1866 to reverend Sorabji Karsedji and Francina Ford. Her parents were advocates of women's education and had set up several girls' schools in Pune. They had encouraged Cornelia to pursue higher studies, which led to her graduation from Bombay University.
She later opted to study law at the Oxford University though it wasn’t easy for her to get in. Universities during that time were reluctant to accept female students. However, the National Indian Association came to Cornelia's help and so did her English friends who petitioned on her behalf to allow her to appear for civil law exam at Somerville College, Oxford. Cornelia completed her course in 1894, but the university, however, didn't award her a degree. Oxford University had only started awarding degrees to women from 1922.
The advocate faced further hurdles as she couldn’t plead for cases neither in England nor in India. After her return to India, she became a legal advisor and fought for the cause of ‘purdahnashins’, the veiled women. These women were forbidden to interact with men outside their families. Cornelia helped widowed ‘purdahnashins’ get their rightful share of the property, helped them to get educated and find jobs. She was even successful in convincing the government to get female assistants to the courts to help women litigants.
To get a law degree, Cornelia again appeared for LLB examination in Bombay University. She eventually went on to become the first woman graduate from the institution. In spite of clearing the pleader examination in Allahabad High Court in 1899, Cornelia was not acknowledged as a barrister.
Women advocates were only allowed in colonial courts in 1923. Cornelia started practicing in Kolkata from 1924. Apart from fighting for her clients, she also had to fight the biased attitude of males in the courts. Six years later, Cornelia retired and moved to London. She died on July 6, 1954.
The revolutionary advocate had published two autobiographies, ‘India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji’ and ‘India Recalled’, a biography of her parents. In addition, she also published numerous articles on ‘purdahnashins’.