Cornelia was born in Nashik in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency of colonial India on this day in 1866. Her parents Reverend Sorabji Karsedji and Francina Ford were advocates of women’s education and established several girls’ schools in Pune. They encouraged Cornelia to take higher studies, and she went on to become the first woman to be graduated from Bombay University.
Cornelia took up law at the famous Oxford University and it was no easy task. It was a time when universities were reluctant to accept female students. The National Indian Association came to Cornelia’s help. Her English friends petitioned on her behalf to allow her to sit for Civil Laws exam at Somerville College, Oxford. In 1894, she completed her course, but the University didn’t award her a degree. Oxford University started awarding degrees to women only since 1922.
Even after completion of her education, Cornelia was not allowed to plead in courts both in England as well as India. She returned to her homeland and became a legal advisor. She took the cause of purdahnashins, the veiled women who were forbidden to interact with men outside their families. She helped widowed purdahnashins get their rightful share of the property, helped them pursue education and secure employment. She succeeded in pursuing the government to appoint Lady Assistants to the courts to help women litigants.
Cornelia again appeared for LLB examination in Bombay University to obtain a law degree, becoming the first woman graduate from the institution. She cleared the pleader examination in Allahabad High Court in 1899 but she was not acknowledged as a barrister.
Only in 1923 colonial courts opened their doors to women advocates. The next year Cornelia began practicing in Kolkata. In addition to pleading for her clients, she had to fight bias and male domination in courts. Six years later she retired and moved to London. She died on July 6, 1954.
She has published two autobiographies India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, and India Recalled, a biography of her parents, and numerous articles on Purdahnashins.