August 1917: “Miss Sorabji’s Work in India”

“Of all the varying forms of war-work on which members of the SSA are engaged perhaps none is more valuable or more interesting than Miss Sorabji’s.” SSA Annual Report 1917

Cornelia Sorabji was a student at Somerville between 1889 and 1892, the first Indian woman to study at Oxford and the first woman to read Law at the University.Somerville College 1890 After completing her training at Lincoln’s Inn, she returned to India and worked as a consulting counsel for women, particularly Purdahnashins, and Legal Adviser to the Court of Wards in Bengal, Behar and Orissa and Assam.

In 1917, Cornelia Sorabji wrote to the Somerville Students’ Association, recounting the national service performed by herself and other women with whom she worked in India. An account of her work was included in that year’s Annual Report. Her earliest war work was to inform women, particularly the most isolated, about the war and India’s participation in it, via vernacular newsletters, magic lantern shows and correspondence.

In 1916, she became President of the Association of University Women in India (AUWI). As in Britain, men were leaving the civilian workforce, recruited, conscripted or requisitioned under the Defence Act. The Association founded an Employment Bureau, registering women with special qualifications and placing them in ‘every class of work, either voluntary or paid’. Universities, publishers, merchants and the military authorities were among the employers promising to find posts for qualified women and the AUWI was asked to recruit 10 women doctors to fill hospital posts vacated by men called to military service.

Cornelia Sorabji also helped craftswomen working from home as a committee member of the Bengal Home Industries Association. In the course of her travels for work, Sorabji was able to examine working conditions and report on industries which were in decline due to shortages of raw materials, money or support.

As in Britain, food supply had become a primary concern. A Food Products Exhibition Scheme evolved out of the work of the Employment Bureau, its purpose to promote the sale of local foodstuffs in place of supplies previously imported from Europe. Food-producing Guilds were set up in fruit-growing areas and a conference was planned for January 1918, at which food preparation, diet and domestic management were to be discussed.

The report illustrated experiences shared by women on the home fronts in different countries, in food production and the workforce more widely, during the First World War. It also revealed Cornelia Sorabji’s early recognition of the importance of information and the role of propaganda in modern warfare.

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