Rare details of how Cornelia Sorabji overcame gender bias emerged as leading members of the University of Oxford and others commemorated the 150th birth anniversary of India’s first woman lawyer and first Indian woman student in Britain on Tuesday.
Born in Nashik, Sorabji (November 15, 1866 – July 6, 1954) became the first Indian woman student at Oxford when she arrived at Somerville College in the autumn of 1889. She had already broken the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman matriculate in erstwhile Bombay in 1883.
Somerville College, which launched a postgraduate scholarship for Indian women in Sorabji’s memory in September, and the Indian high commission will hold a special celebration on Thursday to mark the birth anniversary.
Richard Sorabji, Sorabji’s 82-year-old England-based nephew, told Hindustan Times that after gaining a first class degree from Bombay University in 1887, she was denied government scholarship to study in Britain. But some leading women, including Florence Nightingale, put together a scholarship for her.
There were more hurdles at Oxford, which for centuries was considered a bastion of male privilege.
“(On arriving) at Somerville College in autumn 1889, she was denied permission to study law, again because she was a woman. But England's leading academic, Benjamin Jowett, came to see her, and by February 1890, he had got permission for her to study law,” Richard Sorabji said.
“In 1892, the external examiner from London refused, with a week's notice, to examine a woman. But Jowett, with a day to spare, had Oxford University's Council override him, under the motion 'Oxford University shall examine Cornelia Sorabji'.”
Knighted in 2014 for his academic study of philosophy, Richard Sorabji said his aunt would have been “very pleased” to know that law scholarships for Indian women were now being offered by her college, 129 years after her own struggles.
On return to India, it took a 10-year campaign from 1894 for Sorabji to persuade anyone to give her full-time employment in law. In Allahabad in 1899, she was refused, by one casting vote, a call to the bar, despite passing all the examinations asked of her.
“So she invented her own desired job description, and obtained the role she wanted of adviser to the government of India on women in purdah. These women were first child brides and then widows, with children of their own, and large estates, which in widowhood they could not protect, because they could see no lawyer, since all lawyers were male,” Richard Sorabji said.
“Once Cornelia started work, she gained the trust of both sides, of the Indian Civil Service and of the widows, and the love of the widows, since she transformed not only their legal rights, but their health and the education of their children.”
Sorabji had up to 600 wards at any time, widows and children, spread over Bengal (West and East), Orissa, Assam and Bihar. She opened doors for Indian woman, as English women had opened doors for her to come to Oxford, Richard Sorabji recalled.
Sorabji retired from government service in 1922, by when the status of women had improved in Oxford and England, and she was allowed to collect the degree passed, but not awarded, 30 years earlier.
She was called to the bar in Lincoln's Inn, London, so that she was able to return to India as a barrister, defending her women in purdah from 1922 to 1929 and organising social work by them from 1924 to 1931. She continued reporting on social conditions in India until 1938.
Throughout World War 2 from 1939, she lived in Lincoln's Inn, staying there until her final illness in 1946. She died in London in 1954.