In the midst of the pandemic darkness, it is easy to forget that the year 2020 marks an important anniversary for women’s rights.
In the United States, it has been 100 years since women first cast their ballots. A century ago in the United Kingdom, the first female law students were admitted to the Inns of Court.
At Lincoln’s Inn in London, one of these students, Mithan Lam, was Native American. In 1924, she became the first woman to be allowed to practice law at Bombay High Court, destroying one of the thickest glass ceilings for professional women in the country.
But Lam’s influence extended far beyond the border: she left an indelible mark on the female suffragist movement and the struggle for equality in India.
Lam was born in 1898 into a wealthy and progressive Parsi family. While on vacation in Kashmir in 1911, she and her mother, Herabai Tata, had a chance encounter with Sophia Duleep Singh, an avid feminist and suffragist in Britain.
Imprisoned by a colorful badge worn by Singh and proclaimed “Voices for Women”, Lam and Tata were quickly drawn into the cause of Indian women’s suffrage.
The right to vote was a contentious issue among nationalists in colonial India: should women’s rights be given priority over Indian independence?
Lam saw no contradiction between the two demands and stamped men’s reservations about women’s suffrage as “soap bubble material”. “Men say ‘Home rule is our birthright,'” Tata said in 1918, repeating a famous nationalist slogan. “We say the right to vote is our birthright, and we want it.”
In the autumn of 1919, women’s groups in Bombay decided to send representatives to London when the British Parliament considered women’s suffrage in a package of political reforms for India – also known as the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms.
Lam, 21, and her mother were the natural choice given their determined activism. When given only four days’ notice before sailing to England, they composed their parliamentary evidence on the boat.
The evidence of Tata and Lam highlighted the impossibility of meaningful political reform if half of India were excluded because of gender. “Attempts to reform without cooperation with women,” they argued, “and you are simply lifting a piece of paper on sandy foundations.”
Although their immediate goal did not succeed, their evidence might have prompted the British Parliament to leave the decision on female suffrage to the discretion of the Indian provinces. In 1921, both the Bombay and Madras presidencies granted limited women’s franchises.
Mother and daughter also captivated the British public with their passionate advocate of Indian women’s problems and earned the support of Ramsay MacDonald, the future British Prime Minister, and feminist icon Millicent Fawcett.
Lam’s suffragist activities eventually led her into the world of law. While in London, she decided to pursue a law degree and a master’s degree in economics from the LSE. In 1923, she had the distinction of being the first woman ever called to the bar from the Lincolns Inn as well as the first Indian woman to be called to the bar in Britain.
The recently honored lawyer sailed back to India in December 1923. It was a random time to return, for that year the Indian government removed disqualifications for women to practice law.
Lam found himself in a frightening situation as the only female lawyer in the male bastion at Bombay High Court. “I felt like a new animal in a zoo with people looking through the doorways,” she recalled. “As soon as my shadow crossed from the library to the common room, there would be an unpleasant silence that made me feel even more self-conscious.”
Misogyny could ironically have played a role in the landing of Lam her first court.
According to a former Supreme Court judge, Lam was contacted by a lawyer whose client had a watertight case. “He has such a good case that he can not lose,” the lawyer claimed. “But he wants to inflict humiliation on the opponent by being defeated by a woman.”
Within a few years, however, Lam built a solid legal reputation. She appeared in an eclectic mix of cases in court, ranging from prosecuting currency counterfeiters to defending the validity of a Jewish engagement.
Outside the courtroom, she helped shape gender-sensitive legislation for marriage and inheritance and became a prolific advocate for women’s and children’s rights.
But she matched this legal activism with social work on the ground, switching between Bombay’s elite drawings and its teeming slums. Lam brought slumbers improved infrastructure and health facilities, helped resettle partition refugees, and led numerous social welfare activities during the All India Women’s Conference.
In 1947, the year of Indian independence, Lam added another first to his credit.
She was appointed sheriff of Bombay, the first female sheriff in India. Years later, when she traveled the world as a representative of Indian women, this occasionally caused confusion. The San Francisco sheriff took her on a visit to the city’s prisons and gave her a police staff, unaware that a sheriff in India was occupying a largely ceremonial position. “They were quite fascinated by the fact that a woman could be a sheriff, because in the United States, sheriffs are real police officers and have to be quick with the gun,” she recalled.
By the time she died in 1981, Lam had mentored generations of feminists in the hope that the growing number of women in the law would stimulate political and social reform in India.
Her work – as well as that of hundreds of other relatively unknown female pioneers – has paved the way for the law to become an increasingly popular career choice for Indian women today.
But according to a recent study, while some leading law firms exhibit remarkable gender parity, the Indian law firm remains overwhelmingly male dominated.
Exactly a century ago, Lam supported gender-based exclusion with a poignant question: “How can women be declared unfit without even being tried?”
Such words may have a special resonance today with female trailblazers working their way up into traditionally patriarchal bastions, whether inside or outside the courtroom.
Parinaz Madan is a lawyer and Dinyar Patel is a historian.