Turbulent Londoners: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m looking at Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a feminist and campaigner for women’s rights.


barbara-bodichon-photo

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodicon (Source: University of North Carolina).

Barbara Leigh Smith was born on the 8th of April 1827, the oldest of 5 children. Her mother was Anne Longden, a milliner, and her father was Ben Leigh Smith, a radical Whig politician. Barbara’s parents never married, but lived openly together, so she must have been used to controversy from a young age. Ben Leigh Smith held radical political views, despite being a member of the landed gentry. He treated all five of his children the same; he gave each of them £300 a year when they turned 21. It was highly unusual to for women to be treated this way. Like Elisabeth Jesser Reid, Barbara’s wealth gave her independence, a rare condition for single women at the time.

Barbara used her wealth to start a progressive school in London, researching other schools in London when deciding how to set it up. Later in life she co-founded Girton College in Cambridge, the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level. She gave generously to the college, in terms of both time and money. Her primary concern, however, was women’s rights. She was a member of one of the first organised women’s movements, known as The Ladies of Langham Place. They were a group of women who met regularly during the 1850s at no. 19 Langham Place to discuss women’s rights. They campaigned on many issues, including the property rights of married women. Langham Place served as sort of gentlemen’s club for women; it had a reading room, coffee shop, and meeting room. In 1858 it also became the base of the English Women’s Journal. Barbara set up the monthly periodical  for the discussion of women’s employment and equality, such as expanding employment opportunities and legal rights.

Laurence, Samuel, 1812-1884; Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

A portrait of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Samuel Laurence (Source: ArtUK).

As well as a campaigner and publisher, Barbara was also an author. In 1854 she published Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women, and in 1858 she wrote Women and Work, in which she argued that women’s dependence on their husbands was degrading. She practiced what she preached too; as a young woman she fell in love with John Chapman, the editor of the Westminster Review. She refused to marry Chapman because of her views on the legal position of married women. Barbara did marry eventually however, to French physician Dr. Eugene Bodichon in 1857. This is also the year that the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. The Act protected the property rights of divorced women, and allowed divorce through the courts rather than by an act of Parliament, which was a slow and expensive process. Barbara had testified to a House of Commons committee looking into the legal position of married women, which led to the Act.

Married life did not mellow Barbara, however. Although she started spending the winter in Algiers, she continued to take an active role in women’s rights campaigns. In 1866 she founded the first ever group asking for women’s suffrage. The Women’s Suffrage Committee organised a petition, which was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was a strong character, sympathetic to many causes. Her primary cause, however, was women’s rights, and she used the full range of skills and opportunities available to her to advance this cause. Her efforts had very real effects, particularly in relation to married women.

Sources and Further Reading

Girton College. “Girton’s Past.”No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at  https://www.girton.cam.ac.uk/girtons-past

Simkin, John. “Barbara Bodichon.” Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbodichon.htm

Wikipedia, “Barbara Bodichon.” Last modified 1 December 2016, accessed 8 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Bodichon

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