Determined that all people should have a voice in a court of law, Cornelia Sorabji committed her life to advocating on behalf of women and orphans and was dedicated to her belief that true social change could only occur when all women were educated. Though she was not always popular for her views, particularly her support for the British Raj, she undoubtedly helped hundreds of women fight their cause in the court of law and was a trail blazer for all women, particularly those of colour, in the legal practice.
Born in Nashik, British India, on November 15, 1866, Cornelia Sorabji was inspired by the work of her mother, who ran several girls' schools. It was through home, and missionary schools, that Sorabji received her education. Her mother's support for girls' education and helping the needed was an inspiration for Sorabji's later work as an advocate for women. She attended Deccan College, where she had earned a scholarship to Bombay University. Sorabji consistently earned high marks, including top marks in her final exam. This made her eligible for a scholarship from the Indian Government to study in England. However, no scholarship was offered to her. Instead, she took up a job teaching English at Gujarat college - a college for men.
Sorabji's talent had been recognised by Lady Hobhouse (who may have been an associate of her mother's), and a campaign was started to fund Sorabji's education in England. Lady Hobhouse wrote to the Times in an appeal for donations. Through the generosity of individuals such as Lady Hobhouse, Florence Nightingale, and others in addition to the savings made from her teaching salary, Sorabji was soon able to afford to study at Oxford University. She began her course in 1889 and was granted permission to study the post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL). Sorabji was already the first woman to graduate from Bombay University, now she was the first woman to study law at Oxford. In 1892, she became the first woman to pass the BCL examinations. Nonetheless, women were not allowed to hold a degree from Oxford until 1922, thus Sorabji was not fully recognised as a barrister. Sorabji thus returned to England in 1922 to receive her degree, 30 years after she had passed the required examinations, and on May 1st she was admitted to Lincoln's Inn as a barrister. Sorabji only kept 6 terms at Lincolns Inn, having been permitted a shorter stay due to her also holding a position with the High Court of Judicature in Allahabad. She was finally called to the bar in June 1923, aged 55.
Although Sorabji was not able to fully qualify for 30 years, she still put her talent and knowledge to use. She returned to India in 1894 where she took up the cause of the Purdahnashins, women who had committed to spend their lives separated from men. However, as these women could not communicate with the male outside world, they had no access to legal guidance. Some of the Purdahnashins held good property yet lacked the legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji sought to resolve this, as a female she was able to communicate with the Purdahnashins and special permission was granted to enter pleas on their behalf. However, since she was not permitted professional standing as a barrister until 1922, she was unable to defend the Purdahnashins in court. In 1897, Sorabji presented herself for the Bachelor of Law examinations at Bombay University and two years later she sat the pleaders exam of the Allahabad High Court. This achievement made Sorabji the first woman advocate in India adding to her already impressive list of firsts.
Over 20 years, Sorabji helped advocate for numerous women and orphans, helping as many as 600 fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge. Although in 1922 the legal profession was finally opened to women, Sorabji was confined to preparing opinions for cases rather than pleading them in court. Her many achievements meant little to the male professionals who did not believe a woman capable of being a successful barrister. Nonetheless, Sorabji persisted and continued to practice law in Calcutta (now Kolcata) whilst advocating for those who felt they had no legal guidance available to them. In 1929, Sorabji retired from the High Court and settled in London, where she stayed at Lincolns Inn, choosing to only return to India in the winters.
Despite her qualifications and her commitment to helping others, Sorabji struggled in her later years to achieve some of her social reforms due to her controversial political views. Opposed to rapid reform, and a supporter of the British Raj, Sorabji felt that political reform could only have lasting value once all women were educated. Instead, she supported traditional Indian life and culture and despite being pro-independent early in her career, by the late 1920's she was staunchly nationalist and pro-Empire. This led her to criticism of Mahatma Gandhi, who's non-violent protests sought Indian independence, when she promoted support for empire in 1927.
On 6 July 1954, aged 87, Cornelia Sorabji passed away at Northumberland House, a nursing home in Finsbury Park. During her life she authored several books including two autobiographies. She was the first woman to earn a degree from Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first woman to qualify as a barrister in India, and the first Indian woman to practice as a barrister in the UK. In 1909 she had been awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in recognition of her services to India, and in 2012 a bust of her was unveiled at Lincolns Inn, London, to commemorate her achievements at the place where she first practised law. Sorabji set out with the ambition that all people should have a voice in the court of law. Through her work, and her commitment, she provided the Purdahnashins with that voice. She proved that women could achieve the highest education and her legacy is followed by so many women, particularly Indian, who practice law today.