Published by Pimlico 1999
A Profile of
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon
Based on the above biography
Here is a nineteenth century Unitarian woman who deserves a biography such as this written by Pam Hirsch. The book demonstrates her significance as a woman who believed passionately in education, the rights of women to have a profession, legal property and access rights for women within marriage and divorce as well as someone who pursued her own career as a successful artist and intrepid traveller. She was Florence Nightingale's first cousin and George Eliot's closest friend. The book places her in the centre of many reforming groups and it is only surprising that there has been so little written about this key figure when those who had lesser impact at the time have become famous.
Barbara Smith had a solid Unitarian and political pedigree. Her Grandfather, William Smith (1756-1835) campaigned in Parliament for the abolition of slavery alongside William Wilberforce even though this was against his own business interests. He also worked for the repeal of religious disabilities and the reform of Parliament being the acknowledged leader of the Dissenting cause in Parliament. Benjamin, his son and Barbara's father, followed as a reforming MP and a man committed to the improvement of society. Education was close to Benjamin's heart and like his daughter later, financed the development of schools at different levels.
However, Barbara's origins were unconventional in that her father and mother, Anne Longden, never married. Anne Longden, being a milliner from Alfreton, was considered to be of lowlier origins than the Smith family. They went on to have five children, Barbara being the eldest. Although Barbara's mother died in 1834 leaving a young family behind, Ben continued to care for his children and when he died in 1860 his family was left very comfortably off which allowed Barbara to maintain her independence and continue her financial commitment and interest in improving the opportunities for women.
In 1836 the children were moved from Sussex to Pelham Crescent on the sea front at Hastings. In 1837 Barbara joined the hustings in her father's colours when he stood as a candidate for Norwich. He didn't have as long a parliamentary career as his father but he faithfully attended and continued to support liberal causes.
Barbara and her sisters were educated from 1838 to 1841 at a Unitarian secondary school run by the Misses Wood in Upper Clapton, London. At this time teaching at this level as a career for women was little understood. From the age of twenty-one Barbara was to make a significant contribution in raising the level and opportunities for women in the educational sphere.
In 1848 her father gave her the title-deeds to his own educational experiment, Westminster Infant School. She visited many different types of school, noting the poor quality of the teachers and their methods. She envisaged a school along the lines of James Buchanan who followed the work of Robert Owen. She wanted children to draw more on their imagination rather than being bound by the Bible and learning by rote. She recognised the need to find a mistress who would share her ideals and spread the word amongst her large network of Unitarian friends and contacts. In 1853 Elizabeth Whitehead, a solicitor's daughter from Chelsea responded and the first task she was given was to train herself 'for the great experiment' (p.73) by visiting the best schools in London. After attending the weekly lectures of William Ellis and attending the Birbeck School in Peckham for six months, on 6th November, 1854, the Portman School was opened, with a progressive curriculum, educating boys and girls together, a new venture in education for middle class children. Barbara felt that the teaching of religion should be done in churches rather than schools and that a secular education would encourage tolerance amongst faiths and denominations. This was certainly a radical move.
Barbara's contribution to popular education was recognised when she was only one of twelve women asked to give expert advice to a Royal Commission in 1858.
Barbara deplored the lack of good training for women teachers and whilst most people recognise the work of Emily Davies as the driving force in establishing Girton College fewer realise that it was the brain child of Barbara Bodichon, who was the founder along with Emily Davies. It was through the contacts which Barbara had, plus her own money, £1,000, which allowed the project of providing a University education for women, to move forward. Emily Davies was an excellent committee person and secretary, but was autocratic in approach, whereas Barbara had amazing people skills and was able to smooth over many of the teething problems. Although Barbara wished to locate the first college in Cambridge Emily proceeded to rent Benslow House in Hitchen in 1869. On 16th October five female students undertook the same course as Cambridge undergraduates. It must be remembered though that it wasn't until 1881 that women from Girton and Newnham Colleges were admitted to the BA examinations, 1921 before women were granted titles of degrees, 1923 before they were admitted to university lectures and laboratories and 1948 before Cambridge would admit women to full membership.
On 15th May 1872 seventeen people, including Barbara, signed the Articles of Association for the new Girton College. Building started in 1872 and in October 1873 nine Hitchin students plus six new ones moved into the new building and thus Girton College became a reality.
We often take for granted the contribution which Florence Nightingale made in establishing training for nurses but it is less well known that Barbara encouraged Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America, to come over to England to help open up the medical profession for women.
Perhaps Barbara's greatest love was in being a professional artist. In 1849 she attended art classes given by Francis Cary at Bedford College. She went on to have connections with the Pre-Raphaelites and other women artists of the time. In 1856 she visited Algiers for the first time and found the change of light challenged her to develop her painting skills. She painted and drew both for exhibition and book illustration. In 1857 she founded the Society of Female Artists and also married Dr Eugen Bodichon, a French physician, from which time she spent the winter months at their home in Algiers and the summer months in England. It was never really a marriage of like minds and as time went on Barbara spent more time in England and didn't look forward to returning to her home in Algiers in spite of having her sister settled close by. In 1863 she built Scalands Gate on the family estate in East Sussex with the wish to create a space for her husband who appreciated nature and his own company. He appeared a strange man to many, continuing to wear Arabic attire even in England which prompted many of Barbara's friends to think he remained in his night clothes throughout the day. Before dying in 1885 he was spending more time in Algiers alone, increasingly suffering from dementia.
In 1858 along with her close friend, Bessie Parkes, Barbara founded the English Woman's Journal and the group of women connected with this project developed an agency to try and establish new types of employment for middle class women. However, with Barbara in Algiers for much of the winter, the group missed her mediating skills. On her return to England each year she was increasingly concerned with resolving the differences of opinion and working practices between the women involved on a day to day level.
Barbara never lost her enthusiasm for working towards a fairer society for women. In 1854 she wrote and had published: A Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women which challenged the laws whereby young children were considered the property of the father, who could, at a whim, forbid the mother having access. Later in 1866 she petitioned Parliament for the enfranchisement of women property holders and published: Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women.
In 1875 she suffered her first stroke but retained her interest in the cause of women and particularly women and education. In 1884 she gave another £5,000 to Girton College. In 1891 Barbara died leaving a further £10,000 to Girton – a fitting legacy from an amazing nineteenth century rebel and reformer.
The biography by Pam Hirsch raises the profile of this Unitarian figure but much more than that it sets her in the context which looked back to the ideas and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and forward to the suffragette movement and the twentieth century feminist movement. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon's life was embedded in the social, political and cultural events of the nineteenth century and Pam Hirsch successfully shows this key figure as being the driving force behind many projects working for reform, especially in the spheres of education and political rights for women.