Born on 15 November 1866, Cornelia Sorabji was homeschooled by her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, at many of his mission schools. Feminism ran in her blood, as her mother Francina Ford strongly advocated education for women, and even helped establish several girls’ schools in Pune. Francina Ford’s views and ideology would shape the work Cornelia would go on to do. She also had six siblings – a sister and five brothers.
After allegedly being denied a scholarship to study in England after topping her graduating class, Cornelia Sorabji petitioned to the National Indian Association to assist her in completing her education. Many reputed people funded her education in Britain, including Florence Nightingale. In 1892, she graduated in law from the Sommerville College in Oxford University. Throughout her education, she faced strong opposition from many quarters as men were not used to seeing a woman pursuing the same goals. Often examiners would refuse to examine her, and she would be given poor grades.
Returning to India in 1894, Cornelia Sorabji became involved in helping purdanashins. Purdanashins are women, who according to Hindu law, were forbidden to communicate with any male persons apart from their husbands. Isolated from the male world, the purdanashins never had any legal support, as all lawyers at that time were men. So while many of these women owned considerable property, they would not be able to defend it due to lack of legal access.
She was not allowed to fight in court, as women were not allowed to be barristers at the time in India. Cornelia began to petition the India Office to provide for a felmale legal advisor to represent women and minors in provincial courts. In 1904, she was appointed the Lady Assistant to the Court of Wards of Bengal, and she started to work in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam. It is estimated that in her next 20 years of service, Cornelia Sorabji helped over 600 women and children. Allegedly she would even provide her services for no charge.
Her fight to have women representation in law finally paid dividends, as, in 1924 the legal profession was opened to women in India. Cornelia Sorabji began to practice in Kolkata, hence becoming the first woman to practice law in India, and indeed, in Britain.
Apart from her law, she also wrote a number of books, short stories and articles, including her autobiography ‘Between the Twilights’.
Cornelia Sorabji always believed in educating women, as she believed that any movement for women’s empowerment would fail in the absence of education. And her struggles and success made her an inspiring example to follow. Whether in her education or her legal and social work, Cornelia Sorabji was a history-maker.