Cornelia Sorabji broke a lot of glass ceilings. She was the first woman to graduate from Bombay University, and then became the first woman to read law at Oxford University in 1892, when she was also the first Indian woman to study at a British university. She later became the first woman to practice law in both England and India. Wednesday, on what would be her 151st birthday, Google celebrates Sorabji’s storied achievements with a new Doodle.
Google depicts Sorabji in front of the Allahabad High Court, honoring “her persistence in the face of great adversity.” Like many trailblazers, Sorabji overcame a lot of obstacles before she could create a name for herself and pave the way for India’s future female lawmakers. Despite excelling at her studies, Sorabji was ineligible for a degree from Oxford because of her gender. The university would only begin granting actual bona fide degrees to its female students three decades later, in 1922.
Unable to practice her profession in England, Sorabji returned to India, where, she soon found, the industry was similarly averse to lady advocates. Undeterred, Sorabji became involved in social advocacy, petitioning both India and Britain on behalf of purdahnashins, veiled women who were barred from interacting with men. These prohibitions denied them access to the formal legal system, often leading to the loss of inheritance and other assets that should have been theirs. Sorabji’s advocacy was so successful that she even eventually obtained for them the right to study nursing, providing a crucial opportunity for some women to leave extremely isolated communities.
Sorabji was finally recognized as a barrister in 1924, almost 20 years after she had been appointed “Lady Legal Assistant” to the Court of Wards in Bengal, and one year after she was called to the English bar. Yet even after the legal profession was opened to women in India, Sorabji was limited to preparing opinions and briefings, while her male colleagues plead cases before the courts.
In 1929, Sorabji retired in London, where she died in 1954.