Saturday, April 8, 2017

Campaigning for women’s rights

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, born 190 years ago today, was an early English campaigner for women’s suffrage and education. Indeed, she formed the first Women’s Suffrage Committee and was instrumental in setting up Girton College, the first Cambridge college for women only. Though not a diarist, she did keep a kind of diary during a formative trip to the United States, and this was, eventually, published in the early 1970s.

Bodichon was born 
8 April 1827, the first of several illegitimate child born to politician Benjamin Leigh Smith and his young mistress, Anne Longden, a milliner. They lived openly together at a farm in Sussex, despite the scandal of not being married. But Anne died when Barbara was still only seven. Leigh Smith then brought up the children on his own, later moving them to his London home in Marylebone, where they came into contact with his radical and philanthropic friends. Unusual for the time, Leigh Smith sent his daughters to local (working class) schools.

Having been endowed with £300 a year by her father, Bodichon studied art at the Ladies College in Bedford Square; and then, in 1852, with Elizabeth Whitehall, she opened Portman Hall School in Paddington. She and a group of like-minded friends, who became known
 The Ladies of Langham Place, met regularly to discuss women’s rights. In 1854, she published a pamphlet, A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations Thereon. Despite her doubts about marriage, she wed Dr. Eugène Bodichon, a French physician, in 1957; and they traveled to the American South later that year. They had a house built in Robertsbridge, Sussex.

In 1858, Bodichon, with others, established the English Woman’s Journal which promoted a political and social agenda, but also provided reviews on the arts. It lasted until the mid-1860s, when she helped launch a successor periodical with a feminist agenda, Englishwomen’s Review. In 1866, she formed the Women’s Suffrage Committee, the first of its kind. A petition, organised by the committee, was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill. Bodichon toured the country, speaking every where she went, and publishing pamphlets to further the cause of women’s sufferance and education. Famously, in 1873, she joined with Emily Davies to raise funds for a women-only college in Cambridge - Girton College - though it would be more than 70 years before the college was admitted to Cambridge University.

Throughout her life, Bodichon continued to paint, and even studied under William Henry Hunt. She knew many literary and artistic celebrities of the day, and was one of George Eliot’s closest friends. She fell ill in 1877, after which she was no longer able to campaign so actively. Her husband died in 1885, and shortly after she suffered a stroke, leaving her paralysed. She died in Robertsbridge in 1891. For further information see Wikipedia, Spartacus, Hastings Press, or Thoughtco.

There seems to be no evidence that Bodichon was a diarist, but, during her travels in the United States, she did keep a diary or sorts, in the form of letters to her father. These letters are held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University which provides a short description of them: ‘These letters cover the period 6 Dec 1857 to 11 Jun 1858, and describe in detail the tour of America made by Barbara Bodichon and her husband Eugène Bodichon. Their itinerary included the Mississippi River, New Orleans, Mobile, Montgomery, Savannah, Wilmington, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and parts of Canada. In her letters Bodichon discusses the condition and education of slaves and the rights of freed slaves; women's rights in America, and other aspects of life, conditions, and customs. Also described are visits to Lucretia Mott and Ralph Waldo Emerson.’

The letters were first edited by Joseph W. Reed and published in 1972 as An American Diary, 1857-8 by Routledge & Kegan Paul. As far as I can tell, it has never been re-issued or reprinted. A few extracts can be found at the website of Women and Social Movements in the United States 1600-2000, and a couple can also be read in Pam Hirsch’s biography Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel available at Googlebooks.

11 December 1857
‘Last night I sat finishing up my sketches at the public table. Company: the pretty little Mrs H. and her fair Scotch-looking husband, Mr C. the intellectual-looking Californian gentleman and Mrs B. who has a very beautiful expression and is the most refined woman on the boat. Mr C. is reading a paper and read out loud the announcement of the marriage of a mulatto and a white girl; it excites from all expressions of the utmost disgust and horror. I say, ‘It is very uncommon?’ Mr C. ‘Yes! thank God. Only permitted in Massachusetts and a few states.’ ‘There seems to be nothing disgusting in it. My brothers went to school with a mulatto and I with a mulatto girl, and I have seen mulattoes in England who were not unlikely to many with white.’ All: ‘At school! At school with niggers! ‘Yes.’ All: ‘Horrid idea, how could you?’ BLS: ‘Why, your little children all feel it possible to come in close contact with negroes, and they seem to like it; there is no natural antipathy.’ Some: ‘Yes, there is an inborn disgust which prevents amalgamation.’ (Mark this: only one-half the negroes in the United States are full-blooded Africans - the rest [the] produce of white men and black women.) Some. ‘No it is only the effect of education.’ Mr C: ‘There is no school or college in the U S. where negroes could be educated with whites.’ BLS: ‘You are wrong. Sir. At Oberlin men women and negroes are educated together.’ Mrs B: ‘Yes, I know that, because Lucy Stone was educated there with people of colour.’ Mr C: ‘Lucy Stone - she is a Woman’s Rights woman, and an atheist.’

20 April 1858
‘A cold, pelting rain and as dreary a day as ever I saw. At half past eight we set out to walk to the N. Pennsylvania Rail Station to go to City Lane to see Lucretia Mott. At the Station we saw a ‘Rockaway’ standing in the pelting rain, a fat little horse and well-to-do-looking old ‘friend.’ We had no doubt been expected in spite of the detestable weather and this was Friend Mott, no doubt come for us. Yes. So in we got and drove through what must be a very pretty park which encloses the villas of Friend Thomas Mott and some of his relations. Arrived at a pleasant-looking country house, we are received at the door by one of the four daughters of the house and led into a pretty, bright-looking room, and Lucretia Mott greets us as cordially as if we were really ‘Friend Barbara’ and ‘Friend Bodichon.’ She looks just like a picture. I never saw such a dress, like a pearl. I fell in love with her immediately. She looks ‘full of grace’ in every sense of the word. I do not wonder her preaching has stirred so many souls, her aspect is eloquent, her smile full of good things. She seems to be full of vigour and looks in perfect health, though I believe she is seventy years old. She asked me about Lord Byron, Friend Elizabeth Reid and Julia Smith spoke of them, all three with great regard, especially Friend Elizabeth Reid. She put her hands on my shoulders and said how happy it made her to see that the young women of England were thinking about their rights and trying to do something for justice and freedom. She asked me about Eliza Ton and Bessie Parkes and Mrs. J. Shill especially and I told her as well as I could the number of women and the principle powers on the side of Women’s Rights in England. When she was in England (1840?), she says, the idea was scouted and no women she met in England dared to advocate the rights of women. She seemed absolutely to chuckle with glee to hear that we hold all that she and ‘the Friends’ advocate and only wait to claim the suffrage because it would be useless to try for it now. Massachusetts must make that move - and will, I believe - before many years are passed. So at least the women think.

It is a pleasure to see thouroughgoing reformers who are not poor - it is so rare to see rich people really given to reform ideas. When I see a rich woman like Lucretia Mott advocating a cause which is yet in the rotten-egg stage (I mean its advocates are apt to have rotten eggs and dirtier words thrown at them), I think there is some hope of the rich getting through the eye of the needle into heaven.

Lucretia Mott asked me many questions about the South and slavery, and I told her what I have told you of the wonderful eloquence of the black preachers, of the sales at N. Orleans, the general well-being of the coloured population (compared to white) in Louisiana, of the secret schools, and of the widespread knowledge among the slaves of the efforts made to emancipate.

Lucretia Mott showed me a mass of Woman’s Right literature and I made my pick for the benefit of B.R.P. and M.H., and she showed me her books of notes for lectures with extracts and little quotations so nicely put together, and as we looked them over she gave me little accounts of the occasions on which they were used. She says all the Women’s Rights conventions have been quiet, orderly and dignified and that the rumours of their vulgarity are absolutely unfounded. This Mr. Mott confirmed and said they were more orderly than conventions held by men.

Of course we had a nice dinner and no wine but delicious tea. Bessie remembers Miss Pugh. She was there and her sister, and I was charmed with them. Fanny Priestly is coming to stay with them.

I was very happy that they had remarked one of my drawings - the ‘sunset over corn and willow land’ which was exhibited here in the English Ex: and now gone to Boston.

Please let Mrs. Reid know that I have seen her friends and how pleasant it was to me to feel a link between such good people.

My Doctor was delighted with the whole family as much as I was, and we drove away with good Friend Mott in the rockaway to the station in a most satisfied state of mind and soaking rain. Mrs. Howitt’s niece Miss Harrison is going to marry into this society and I think she could not do better; Lucretia Mott is a heart. I wish we had in England ten thousand good as she.

Tomorrow we go to an anti-slavery meeting with Mrs. Mott and you shall hear what else we do. But I shall post this when we are in town.’

10 June 1858
‘Wendell Phillips came in the evening. He was enchanting. He told me that the W. R. Movement had made immense progress since 1850. He knows twenty women at least who can gain their living by lecturing in Lyceums. He says Lyceums in debt very often get women to come and lecture on W.R. even when they do not agree with her, because they know she will attract a paying audience. Gentlemen who were dead set against the W.R. now advocate it. A Governor of Ohio was obliged to apologize to the ladies of Ohio and recant because he refused to hear female delegates to some Society, etc. etc.

Wendell Phillips himself says when Lyceums come to him he says, “Yes, I will lecture for you: 50 dollars for Literature or Abolition, or WR for nothing.” ’

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