Cornelia Sorabji

(1866-1954) – Pioneering lawyer and activist

Cornelia Sorabji came to Somerville in 1889 to study Law. She was the first woman admitted to read Law at Oxford University and the first Indian woman to study at any British university. As a child growing up in India, Sorabji found herself moved by the life stories of the women who lived behind the ‘curtain’ of Purdah, whose enforced seclusion, often compounded by illiteracy, made them easy victims of legal fraud. When her mother asked her ‘What are you going to do for India when you grow up?’, she decided that the most practical way to help was to learn the law.

Sorabji began by studying English Literature at a branch of Bombay University (where the male students often shut the doors of lecture halls in her face). Coming top in her examinations there meant that she automatically gained an English Government Scholarship to study Law in the UK. When the administrators of the scholarship programme discovered she was a woman, though, Sorabji was denied the scholarship. The Principal of Somerville worked with others to right the wrong by raising the funds to allow her take up her place.

Sorabji took her examinations in 1892 and returned to India, working for women in Purdah offering legal representation and help in the spheres of health and education. Admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1922 and to the Bar in 1923, she was also finally admitted to the Allahabad High Court in 1923 when its ban on women lawyers was lifted. She retired in 1929 and chose to return to England, living in Finsbury Park. In 2012, Lady (now Baroness) Brenda Hale unveiled a bust of Sorabji in the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn.

In 2016, Somerville and the University of Oxford launched the Cornelia Sorabji Graduate Scholarship Programme for students who seek to lead change on their return to India.

Somervillian and Cornelia Sorabji Scholar Aradhana Cherupara Vadekkethil on Cornelia Sorabji: ‘Sorabji is an inspiration to me: that she could write so radically and bravely about the position of women in India right at the start of the twentieth century made me realise that social change starts with those difficult conversations we have with each other about things that might well make us uncomfortable.’

Did you know? Cornelia Sorabji was a close friend of the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and read his elegiac poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ at the poet’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.

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