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CORNELIA SORABJI (1866–1954)


Born in 1866 in Nasik, India’s pioneer women lawyer Cornelia came from a Parsi family that had converted to Christianity, and the seven children were ‘brought up English’. She graduated from Poona’s Deccan College in 1884 with first class marks, the first woman to do so and the only one till 1911, but the automatic scholarship to England was withdrawn because of her sex. She took a job teaching English to male students at a college in Ahmedabad, and finally in 1889 friends arranged a scholarship for her at Somerville College, Oxford, to study law. She could not become a barrister as the laws in Britain did not allow women to do so, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and then Vice Chancellor of Oxford, conferred a special degree on her in 1893, allowing her to become the first woman to sit for the advanced law degree. She joined a solicitors’ firm as a trainee and in 1894 returned to India. Back home she worked tirelessly to give legal help to women especially widows. In 1919 women were finally allowed to become barristers, and Cornelia went back and qualified in 1923 at the age of 57. She wrote India Calling in 1934, a memoir of her life helping the purdahnashins of Bengal. She seems to have been a woman very much on her own, unwilling or unable to forge close friendships, prickly yet willing to help those in trouble, and scathing about those she felt were mistaken in their politics or their beliefs. In 1954, after a prolonged and tragic spell of mental illness, she died at the age of 88.
 
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