Dogged champion of the powerless

Power and Protest
September 2, 2005

The 19th-century feminist and social reformer Frances Power Cobbe was well known in her time for her writings on the role of women, as well as her leadership of the antivivisection campaign. Yet most historians, as Lori Williamson points out, have focused on Cobbe's contribution to the women's movement. This biography, the first of this important Victorian figure, draws on an impressive range of sources to skilfully draw a broader, more comprehensive picture of Cobbe's extraordinary life.

Cobbe was born in Dublin in 1822 to a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, but did not fulfil her expected social destination in life, namely finding a husband. She grew up to be an intellectually able young woman who found men tedious. Throughout her adult life she would be attracted to women.

Her engagement with theological reading led to a questioning of the Bible and the belief in a just and rational God whose moral law was evident to everyone through his or her own intuition. In 1855, she published the first of many works championing her particular form of theism. Her father, furious about his daughter's "heresy", left her only a small sum of money when he died while the family home passed to his eldest son. Refusing to be dependent on her brother, Cobbe determined to forge an independent life.

In 1858, she moved to Bristol to live with and help Mary Carpenter in her reformatory work with street children. Cobbe did not enjoy the experience and soon left. She then tried her hand at workhouse reform before moving to London where she became drawn into the women's rights movement. She was a professional journalist earning £300 a year, and was published prolifically in a wide range of Victorian periodicals. In numerous articles she argued that women needed to be educated to lead useful lives, be it as single women or as wives and mothers. She bitterly criticised a social and legal system that reduced woman to the status of criminal, idiot or minor.

Marriage, she asserted, had destroyed women's individuality and reinforced the power of men. She also campaigned on the issue of wife abuse, making a contribution to a change in the law that allowed battered wives a separation from their husbands, who then had to provide maintenance. In 1867, Cobbe became chair of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, but resigned her post when she feared it might adopt a radical tone. The now corpulent Cobbe, with her flowing drab dresses and rather mannish ways, cut an unorthodox figure, even in cosmopolitan London. She was living with the Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd, in what may be termed a "marriage". Their relationship fluctuated "between the parental and the spousal", suggests Williamson, "and the intensity of their companionship was drawn from spiritual, if not overt sexual, affinity".

During the 1860s, the animal rights movement increasingly occupied Cobbe's time after she had read that a French veterinary school allowed its students to operate on aged unanaesthetised horses. In 1875 she helped found an organisation that sought to restrict animal experiments, the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV), with herself as one of the joint honorary secretaries.

Over the coming years, internecine conflict developed within the growing antivivisection movement. The strong-minded, dogmatic Cobbe, who came to support abolition, contributed to the endless squabbling through what Williamson terms "a combination of stubbornness over policy, insensitivity to the feelings of others and insecurity about her position within the movement".

After she resigned her honorary secretary post in 1882, she retired to Lloyd's house in Wales but continued to write and speak not only on antivivisectionism but also on women's suffrage and religion. However, controversy continued to follow the often tactless campaigner, known for her sharp wit. The opposition Cobbe encountered, especially in the medical profession, was as much for her transgression of gender roles as for her confrontational style when challenging male power. In 1898, when "her" society voted to support the restriction of vivisection, she rallied her few remaining supporters and formed a rival organisation, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

Despite increasing ill health, she was still working when she died in 1904.

She was buried next to her beloved companion, Lloyd, who had predeceased her by eight years. Williamson's biography of Cobbe captures vividly the complexity of this controversial yet influential Victorian figure who questioned the conventions of her age, especially the power hierarchies that men held over women and the relationship of humans to animals.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Power and Protest: Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Society

Author - Lori Williamson
Publisher - Rivers Oram Press
Pages - 7
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 185489 100 6

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