This photograph of Cornelia Sorabji dates from later in her life and career. Hailing from a Christian Parsi family, Sorabji arrived in Britain in 1889 to study at Somerville College at Oxford University. She was the first woman law student at a British University and the only Indian woman student at Somerville (until the arrival of the daughters of Maharaja Duleep Singh, Bamba and Catherine, in 1890).
Female students in Victorian Britain had to overcome many obstacles. Until 1893, they needed a chaperone to attend their lectures. But the biggest barrier Cornelia Sorabji had to face related to her exams. She was asked to sit her Bachelor of Civil Law exams alone at her own college, supervised by the warden, and not in the schools with the male students. This was because the London examiner refused to assess a woman. Sorabji contested this decision as she thought that it would make her degree count for less. She was worried that in the future, when women were allowed to take a degree, hers might be denied. Her appeal was successful. The university made special arrangements, allowing her to sit the exam with the men.
Her victory marked a first step for greater equality in higher education and to opening up the Bar for women. It wasn’t until 1919, however, that British women were called to the Bar, which allowed them to practice law. Sorabji had to wait even longer, until 1923, when she visited England.
After she completed her studies in 1894, Sorabji returned to India as a legal adviser to help women with property cases. She published with her autobiography, India Calling: The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji in 1934. She settled permanently in Britain after her retirement in the 1930s and died in London in 1954, aged 88.
- Article by:
- Susheila Nasta, Dr Florian Stadtler, Rozina Visram
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