What is the ultimate accolade for a lawyer?
A title in their own lifetime, perhaps? A discreet plaque put up after their death? In today’s world, there is a new force for recognition, and 151 years after her birth, legal pioneer Cornelia Sorabji has harnessed it. Sorabji – the first woman to study Law at Oxford, and one of the first women to practise law at the Bar in both India and the UK – became a Google Doodle in November 2017.
Very few in the UK have heard of Sorabji. She is better known in India, though arguably nowhere near as well known as she should be. Born on 15 November 1866, one of eight children (including seven daughters) of a Parsee Christian family of educationalists, Sorabji’s life story is a series of ‘firsts’. The first woman to study at Bombay University (where she won first-class honours); the first woman admitted to read Law at Oxford University; India’s first female barrister. She was, without doubt, extraordinary.
As a child, Sorabji found herself moved by the appalling life stories of the women who lived behind the ‘curtain’ of Purdah. Their enforced seclusion, often compounded by illiteracy, made them easy victims of legal fraud when it came to their rights and their property. When the young Cornelia’s 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. Her path, though, was anything but clear.
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. She topped the results lists nonetheless, thereby automatically gaining an Indian Government Scholarship to study Law in the UK. Until the administrators discovered she was woman, that is. The scholarship was denied her, and it was only after the Principal of Somerville College, Oxford and other social activists of the time (including Florence Nightingale and Lady Hobhouse) worked to raise funds for her that Sorabji was able to take up her place and begin her legal studies. Even then, the University at first refused to allow her sit her examinations in the Examination Schools along with male students. It was only the intervention of Benjamin Jowett (who later become a lifelong friend of Sorabji and introduced her to the leading figures of Victorian society, including Tennyson) that Oxford University’s Council spoke and said: ‘Oxford shall examine Cornelia Sorabji.’
Sorabji graduated from Oxford with a degree in Jurisprudence in 1892 and returned to India. Her work there for women in Purdah extended beyond the legal sphere into health and education, and she continued for the better part of her life to organize social work and to report on social conditions. She was eventually admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1922, and to the Bar in 1923. When Sorabji retired in 1929, she chose to return to England. She died at her home in Finsbury Park on 6 July 1954. In May 2012, Lady (now Baroness) Brenda Hale unveiled a bust of Sorabji in the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn.
And the Google Doodle? Drawn by Jasjyot Sing Hans, it shows Sorabji outside the Allahabad High Court, to which she was finally admitted in 1923 when its ban on women lawyers was lifted.
Sorabji is also now commemorated by a fast-growing scholarship programme for talented Indian students of Law. Based at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and jointly run by Somerville College, Oxford and Oxford University’s Faculty of Law, the Cornelia Sorabji Graduate Scholarship programme has been made possible through generous donations from alumni of Somerville and members of the legal community. Launched in 2016, the scholarships aim to support students who would not otherwise be able to afford to study at Oxford, and are expressly targeted at those who seek to lead change on their return to India. The programme is already home to three talented scholars.
Aradhana Cherupara Vadekkethil, who is reading for the BCL, feels a strong connection to Sorabji: ‘I read Sorabji’s 1901 work Love and Life Beyond the Purdah in my first year at Law school. 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.’
Contributor Lizzy Emerson. The Google Doodle can be seen here.