Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon 1827 – 1891 was an English educationalist, artist, and a leading early nineteenth century feminist and activist for women’s rights. Bodichon was one of the foremost founders of the women’s rights movement in Britain. Bodichon was friend of publisher John Chapman the proprietor of the Westminster Review. It was rumoured that publisher John Chapman and Barbara Bodichon were lovers. Bodichon was the cousin of Florence Nightingale. Bodichon’s close friend Bessie Rayner Parkes was the cousin of Elizabeth Blackwell.
Bodichon recommended homeopath James John Garth Wilkinson to the Rosetti family: ‘… With difficulty they at last succeeded in persuading the obstinate girl [Lizzie Siddal] to visit Dr. Garth Wilkinson [James John Garth Wilkinson], … It was, in fact, Anna Mary [Howitt - the daughter of William and Mary Howitt] and her friends Bessie Parkes [Bessie Raynor Parkes] and Barbara Leigh Smith [Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon] who had pushed the lovers into active pursuit of remedies…’ (Oswald Doughty, A Victorian romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (Oxford University Press, 1960). Page 143.)
Barbara’s childhood tutor and friend was an inspired infant school teacher called James Buchanan (1784-1858), an advocate of Emanuel Swedenborg (Richard Lines, Eros, Swedenborg and Literature, online (shortened version of the lecture given at Swedenborg Hall, London on July 8th, http://www.swedenborgstudy.com/articles/history-of-art/eros-and-literature.htm) and also from an article in Things Seen and Heard No. 40 Spring 2013 (Newsletter of the Swedenborg Society) entitled Swedenborg and Education).
Bodichon was a friend of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Jesser Reid, John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. Bodichon also knew Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott and many, many friends and associates over her many fruitful years. Bodichon’s uncle Octavius Smith, was a major financial contributor to John Chapman’s Westminster Review.
Bodichon’s grandfather had worked closely in Parliament with William Wilberforce in his campaign against the slave-trade and had supported the French Revolution, whereas her great-grandfather had favoured the American colonists against the British government…
Her father Benjamin Leigh Smith‘s house was a meeting place for fellow radicals and political refugees. This gave Barbara the opportunity to meet and make friends with a wide range of different people involved in politics. Benjamin Leigh Smith was an advocate of women’s rights and treated Barbara the same way as her brothers.
Barbara and her four brothers and sisters attended the local school where they were educated with working class children… At the age of twenty-one, Benjamin Leigh Smith gave all his children £300 a year. It was extremely unusual for fathers to treat their daughters this way and it gave Barbara the chance to be independent of her family.
Barbara used some of this money to establish her own progressive school in London. Barbara selected Elizabeth Whitehead to be the school’s headteacher. Before opening what later became known as the Portman Hall School, Barbara and Elizabeth made a special study of primary schools in London. It was decided to establish an experimental school that was undenominational, co-educational, and for children of different class backgrounds.
In the 1850s Barbara concentrated on the campaign to remove women’s legal disabilities. This included writing articles and organizing petitions. The writer, Caroline Norton, also played an important role in this campaign. Barbara gave evidence to a House of Commons committee looking into the legal position of married women. The committee deliberations resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act that allowed divorce through the law courts instead of the slow and expensive business of a Private Act of Parliament. Barbara was particularly pleased that this new act also protected the property rights of divorced women.
Barbara was very critical of a legal system that failed to protect the property and earnings of married women. In 1857 Barbara wrote Women and Work where she argued that a married women’s dependence on her husband was degrading.
As a young woman Barbara had fallen in love with John Chapman, the editor of Westminster Review. Her views on the legal position of married women meant that she was unwilling to marry John Chapman (he was already married!)
However, after meeting Eugene Bodichon, Barbara decided to compromise her principals by marrying this former French army officer. Bodichon held radical political views and loyally supported Barbara in her many campaigns for women’s rights.
In 1858 Barbara Bodichon and her friend, Bessie Rayner Parkes, founded the journal, The Englishwoman’s Review. For the next few years the two women made their journal available to women campaigning for women doctors and the extension of opportunities for women in higher education.
Bodichon now decided the time was right to campaign for the franchise. 1866 Bodichon formed the first ever Women’s Suffrage Committee. This group organised the women’s suffrage petition, which John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons on their behalf.
Bodichon now toured the country where she held meetings on the subject of women’s suffrage. Her speeches converted many women to the cause, including Lydia Ernestine Becker, the future leader of the movement. Bodichon also wrote and published a series of pamphlets on the subject of women’s rights. Although her main efforts went into the women’s suffrage campaign, Bodichon continued her work to improve women’s education.
Bodichon joined with Emily Davies to raise funds for the first women’s college in Cambridge. Girton College was opened in 1873 but women students at Girton College were not admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.
In 1877 Bodichon was taken seriously ill and although she recovered she was left paralyzed. Although Bodichon retained her interest in women’s rights, she was no longer able to take an active role in the movement. Bodichon remained an invalid until her death in 1891. In her will Barbara Bodichon left a large sum of money to Girton College, Cambridge.
The following is from the fascinating article by Helena Wojtczak at The Hastings Collection:
It is something of a mystery that Bodichon’s parents never wed. The scandal of marrying a woman from a lower social class was nothing compared with raising five children out of wedlock. Biographer Pam Hirsch feels that perhaps Benjamin Leigh Smith did not want Anne and the children to become his chattels, as the law would have deemed them had the pair married. This would certainly have fitted in with Benjamin Leigh Smith‘s radical beliefs and later actions.
In 1836, when Barbara was nine, Benjamin Leigh Smith and the five children settled permanently into 9 Pelham Crescent. Benjamin Leigh Smith was elected MP for Norwich and while at the House of Commons, he asked Aunt Dolly Longden or Aunt Julia Smith to look after the children. Local people were employed to help: Catherine Spooner, governess; Harry Porter, Latin and history tutor; and Mr Willetts, the foremost local riding master.
In 1842 Benjamin Leigh Smith spent £215 on a beautifully ornate, eight-seater omnibus from the best coachbuilders in Hastings, Rock and Baxter of 6 Stratford Place, West Parade. With coachman Stephen Elliott at the reins, four horses drew the magnificent vehicle carrying the Leigh Smith children and their staff around Sussex and the home counties.
During the 1840s Benjamin Leigh Smith bought more land to the south and west of Robertsbridge, including Scalands Farm, Mountfield Park Farm and Glottenham Manor (rebuilt and now a nursing home). The latter included the ruins of a 14th-century fortified and moated house.
When each of his children reached 21, Benjamin Leigh Smith broke with tradition and custom by treating his daughters the same as his sons, giving them investments which brought each an annual income of £300. He also gave to Barbara the deeds of the Westminster school.
The combination of an unconventional upbringing and a private income placed Barbara in an extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman. Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and expected only to marry, bear children and live in subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women.
But she did not succomb to housewifery; she became a painter and social reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden. The three Samworth girls and the three Leigh Smith girls enjoyed painting expeditions around Hastings. Barbara studied art at Bedford Square Ladies College (London) during 1849 and gained some reknown as a painter. Some of her work is held at Hastings Museum; other paintings are at Girton College, Cambridge….
In the art world Barbara met the painter Alfred William Hunt, who lived during the winter in a small house at the foot of the East Cliff, Hastings. Barbara’s painting tutors included William Collingwood Smith, who took her to meet John Hornby Maw in West Hill House. Through Miss Bayley she met George Scharf, later director of the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1852 she met George Eliot, who was to remain a lifelong friend.
As well as art, Barbara studied political economy and law at Bedford Square. Another lifelong friend was William Ransom (b.1822), a printer and stationer based at 42 George Street, Hastings. He gave her the opportunity to get her radical ideas into print by allowing her to write women’s emancipation articles for his newspaper The Hastings & St Leonards News. From June to August 1848 Barbara wrote, under the pen-name “Esculapius,” An Appeal to the Inhabitants of Hastings, Conformity to Custom and The Education of Women.
In 1850 Bessie Rayner Parkes introduced Barbara to her cousin, the first woman physician, Elizabeth Blackwell. However, Barbara’s cousin Florence Nightingale snubbed her Uncle Ben’s illegitimate offspring.
As young women of 21 and 23, Bessie and Barbara were, most unusually, allowed to go unchaperoned on a walking tour of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, visiting Mary Howitt in Munich. The three discussed women’s inferior status and wanted to change it. But men held all political power and would fight to preserve the system which served their interests so well.
The two did, however, indulge in a little personal liberation. Female costume at the time was uncomfortable, impractical and restrictive. They abandoned their corsets and shortened their skirts… They were also, rather audaciously, swanning around in heavy boots and wearing blue tinted spectacles…
From the early 1850s Barbara divided her life between Hastings and London. The opening of the railway line to London in 1851 shortened her journeys to just 2 and a half hours. Prior to this, the journey took 8 hours, either by road, or by road and rail via Staplehurst Station.
Willie Leigh Smith became estates manager at Glottenham and Ben was training to be a barrister so in 1853 their father gave up Pelham Crescent. Smith and Barbara lived at Blandford Square or in Sussex, staying often at Scalands Farm. While in the Hastings area Barbara continued to spend time among artists and bohemians.
Among her friends were members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal. It was she who arranged convalescent accommodation for Elizabeth Siddal at 5 High Street in 1854.
In 1854 Barbara wrote her first nation wide publication, A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women. This remarkable document listed for the first time the legal disabilities and restrictions under which women lived. Barbara proved herself a researcher and scholar by sifting through all the laws of Britain to create ‘a pamphlet very thin and insignificant looking, but destined to be the small end of the wedge which was to change the whole fabric of the law’.
It was widely read and discussed and provided an agenda for action. Barbara’s friends and fellow feminists Florence and Rosamund Davenport Hill discussed the pamphlet with their solicitor brother Alfred, who took it to The Law Amendment Society, of which he was a member, which appointed a committee to investigate the laws listed.
As Barbara may have been aware, women’s suffrage had already been taken up in a very small way by Anne Knight, who had founded a Female Political Association in 1847 to demand votes for women, and petitioned parliament; and also by Harriet Taylor Mill (the wife of John Stuart Mill), who in 1851 argued for women’s suffrage in the Westminster Review, a paper (previously) edited by her husband, John Stuart Mill. (NB John Chapman became the owner of the Westminster Review in 1851).
Barbara’s priority however was to tackle women’s non-existence within marriage. When a woman married, everything she owned, inherited or earned belonged solely to her husband to dispose of as he wished. This arrangement was long standing and was rarely questioned. At the time, to even contemplate changing it seemed outlandish; yet Barbara formed a committee whose intention was to reform the law and give married women rights to their own property.
Many men said it would cause arguments between married couples; others said that the move would upset the “natural” balance of power between husbands and wives; some feared that women would become self-assertive, a fearful prospect for men.
Within a year Barbara’s little committee had become a nation-wide campaign group, and she drafted a petition, the text of which was published in the Hastings and St Leonards News on 15th February 1856. A footnote informed the reader that one of the 70 copies of the petition was lying at Mr Winter’s shop at 59 George Street, Hastings. The paper had “no doubt that many ladies will find their way thither to attach their names.”
The committee also compiled case studies of how individual women were suffering because of the law. There were hundreds of instances of women losing everything on marrying a man who absconded after the wedding, leaving them destitute. If such a woman was subsequently to earn or inherit any money, the errant husband could return at any time, seize all she had and leave once more. The petition was intended to support the suggestions of the Law Amendment Society.
The 70 parts were pasted together and presented to the House of Lords in March 1856 with 26,000 signatures. This was the first organised feminist action in the UK. Its rejection came as no surprise given that Parliament consisted of men, most of whom were married and therefore benefited directly from the status quo.
Barbara’s personal qualities were lauded in her day and after. Bessie described Barbara as “the most powerful woman I have ever known.” Dale Spender points out that Barbara is “almost invariably portrayed… as a woman of glowing strength, active intelligence, warmth, understanding, and energy”.
There seems to have been something particularly vigorous about Barbara Leigh Smith, who was taken by George Eliot as the model for the heroine of her novel Romola. Tall, handsome, generous and quite unselfconscious, she swept along, distracted only by the too great abundance of her interests and talents, and the too great outflowing of her sympathies…
Life was a stirring affair for Barbara. Everything was before her — Art (for her painting was taken seriously by many eminent painters), philanthropy, education, politics — everything lay at her feet. The only trouble was to pick and choose.
Another of her interests was spiritualism: she attended a series of séances in London during 1853 with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bessie, and the Howitts. Stress and overexhaustion led to a serious nervous collapse in 1856 on returning from a trip to Rome.
Just prior to this breakdown, Barbara had a love afair with her publisher John Chapman, who was married. He was by all accounts a philanderer and rogue who Barbara’s father wanted her to shun. Benjamin Leigh Smith arranged trip to Algeria with her brother Ben and their sisters. There she met Eugène Bodichon, a French physician, who she married on 2 July 1857. Most unusually for a woman at that time, she wrote her profession on her marriage certificate (“artist”).
Eugène was as unconventional and free-thinking as Barbara: for much of their marriage she spent half the year with him in Algeria and the remainder without him in England, where she continued her profession and her feminist campaigning. During their seven month honeymoon they visited Elizabeth Blackwell in the USA and Barbara entreated her to return to England. The following year Elizabeth Blackwell was a guest at Barbara’s London home.
Barbara introduced Elizabeth Blackwell to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, an aspiring physician. This meeting was to prove a momentous one, for the two later opened the first women’s medical practices in London. (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson later became famous and London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital was named for her).
Under Barbara’s influence, in 1879, Elizabeth Blackwell moved to Hastings, where she remained until her death 30 years later.
In 1857 Barbara published a very radical pamphlet called Women and Work in which she asserted: “No human being has the right to be idle… Women must, as children of God, be trained to do some work in the world.” She called for equality of education and work opportunities and advocated that all married women should work, citing nature as support: “Birds, both cock and hen, help one another to build their nest.”
Again, this was an outrageous demand, and thought by some to be subversive. Barbara did not hold back; she said plainly that letting men hold all the financial resources of the world and then refusing to admit women to any decently paid work or professional career forced them to marry for financial support, which amounted to legal prostitution; and the 43 percent of women with no man to support them lived in poverty which led many to succumb to casual prostitution.
Barbara made plain that she meant interesting, challenging occupations and not menial or domestic chores by emphasising that women needed: “WORK – not drudgery, but WORK”.
In 1858 Barbara purchased The Englishwoman’s Review and was able to disseminate her ideas more widely. It was published nation-wide and informed women about the rights movement. From this sprung the Association for Promoting the Employment of Women.
Between 1853 and 1863, Barbara was a frequent visitor to the Hastings area, staying on the family estates, or back at No. 9 Pelham Crescent, where her sister’s family now leased rooms, or with the Samworths at Hastings. She painted Mrs Samworth’s corn field in 1855, near the spot where another of the Samworth’s house guests, William Holman Hunt, had painted Our English Coasts three years earlier.
When Benjamin Leigh Smith died in 1860 Barbara inherited 5 Blandford Square, Ben inherited the Glottenham estates and Willie inherited Crowham Manor. In 1863 Barbara leased three acres from Ben and built Scalands Cottage in a pinewood clearing in Harding’s Wood. It was near Scaland’s Farm but closer to the road, and thus she called it Scalands Gate (extant, now Scaland’s Folly).
The house was built to Barbara’s own design and specification. The internal walls were covered from floor to ceiling with Barbara’s own paintings. Gertrude Jekyll created the garden. The house was visited by Barbara’s interesting circle of friends. In the 1860s these included Mary Howitt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Frederick North and Marianne North, Dean and Lady Stanley, and Herbert Gladstone. Later guests included the Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Gertrude Martineau, Lord Brassey, Henry Fawcett, George Eliot and John Ruskin.
In 1865 Barbara, as a member of the Kensington Society, co-drafted another petition, this time for women’s suffrage. Two women took it to Westminster Hall: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Emily Davies, (with whom Barbara founded Girton College). Feeling self-conscious, they asked the apple-seller to hide the huge petition under her stall while they waited for John Stuart Mill. She agreed, but bid the ladies unroll it a little so that she could apppend her own signature. John Stuart Mill accepted the petition and presented it to the House of Commons in 1866 to support an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the vote.
It was defeated by 196 votes to 73. In 1869 Barbara contributed to the debate once again by publishing Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women and John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women.
In 1882 Barbara funded Scalands Night School for the poor.
Barbara had hoped to have children, but this was not to be. After 28 years of marriage Eugène died in 1885 and shortly afterwards Barbara suffered a stroke at her cottage at Zennor, Cornwall, after which she was an invalid.
With thanks to the fascinating article by Helena Wojtczak at The Hastings Collection.