Cornelia Sorabji was a legal pioneer – the first woman to study law at Oxford and India’s first female advocate. On what would have been her 152nd birthday, the College is publishing online a copy of the funding appeal that supported her studies in England.
The document gives an impression of the significant discrimination and financial barriers Sorabji overcame. It also records her hope that, if successful, the “novel experiment” of giving her an Oxford education might “lead to a higher estimation of Indian women, whose capacities have been so long repressed by custom and religion.”
The appeal, dated 1889, notes how she passed the second B.A. examination at Bombay University in 1887, as one of four in the first class, “the others, of course, being men”. She continued to confound expectations when she “lectured to a Class of Men” at the Guzerat Arts College in Ahmedabad.
The document includes a testimonial from the Principal of the Guzerat College, which records that she “did her work with remarkable ability and tact, in a very quiet and unassuming way, at the same time that she exercised complete control over the students.”
The appeal was issued at a time when she had begun her studies at Somerville, but needed support to complete her course and pay off debt she had incurred in India.
The appeal reveals the wide array of figures who helped to fund her early studies, including some of the most prominent women of late Victorian England.
Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, is among the donors, giving £5 and 5 shillings. Though she never visited India, Nightingale campaigned for reforms to sanitation on the subcontinent.
Somerville’s first Principal Madeleine Shaw Lefevre and alumna Emily Georgiana Kemp were also among Sorabji’s supporters.
As the first “Lady Professor” in India, Sorabji had already broken barriers before coming to study in Oxford. However, despite the fact that she qualified academically for a Government of India Scholarship, these were reserved exclusively for men. Even when their chosen scholar for the year was unable to complete the voyage due to seasickness, she was not considered, despite the fact that she “did not fear ordeal by water”.
Men named on the list as donors include the former vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta and the proprietor of one of the world’s largest biscuit companies at the time.
The document offers a fascinating insight into the beginning of a relationship between Somerville and India that has continued to flourish to the present day, with many of the donors possessing strong links to the subcontinent.
The College and the Oxford India Centre launched the Cornelia Sorabji Law Scholarship in 2016 in her memory, once again allowing exceptional Indian law scholars to study at Somerville with philanthropic support.
More information on the Cornelia Sorabji Law Scholarship can be found here.