Barbara Bodichon

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Barbara Bodichon
File:Barbara Bodichon sketch.jpg
Barbara Bodichon portrait by Samuel Lawrence
Born Barbara Leigh Smith
(1827-04-08)8 April 1827
Carlton Crescent, Southampton
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Nationality British
Known for founder Girton College, Cambridge

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (8 April 1827 – 11 June 1891) was an English educationalist and artist, and a leading mid-19th-century feminist and women's rights activist.

Early life

She was the extra-marital child of Anne Longden, a milliner from Alfreton, and the Whig politician Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (1783–1860), the only son of the Radical abolitionist William Smith. Benjamin had four sisters. One, Frances (Fanny) Smith, married William Nightingale (né Shore) and produced a daughter, Florence, the nurse and statistician; another, Joanna Maria, married John Bonham-Carter (1788–1838) MP and founded the Bonham Carter family. Ben's father wanted him to marry Mary Shore, the sister of William Nightingale, now a relative by marriage.

Ben Smith's home was in Marylebone, London, but from 1816 he inherited and purchased property near Hastings: Brown's Farm near Robertsbridge, with an extant house built about 1700, and Crowham Manor, Westfield, which included 200 acres (0.81 km2). Although a member of the landed gentry, Smith held radical views. He was a Dissenter, a Unitarian, a supporter of free trade, and a benefactor to the poor. In 1826 he bore the cost of building a school for the inner city poor at Vincent Square, Westminster, and paid a penny a week towards the fees for each child, the same amount as paid by their parents.[1]

On a visit to his sister in Derbyshire in 1826, Smith met Anne Longden. She became pregnant by Smith and he took her to a rented lodge at Whatlington, a small village near Battle, East Sussex. There she lived as "Mrs Leigh", the surname of Ben Smith's relations on the nearby Isle of Wight. Barbara's birth created a scandal because the couple did not marry; illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma. Smith rode from Brown's Farm to visit them daily, and within eight weeks Anne was pregnant again. When their son Ben was born, the four of them went to America for two years, during which time another child was conceived.

On their return to Sussex they lived openly together at Brown's and had two more children. After their last child was born in 1833, Anne became ill with tuberculosis and Smith leased 9 Pelham Crescent, which faced the sea at Hastings; the healthy properties of sea air were highly regarded at the time. A local woman, Hannah Walker, was employed to look after the children. Anne did not recover, so Smith took her to Ryde, Isle of Wight, where she died in 1834. Barbara was only seven years old.

Later life

File:Ventnor BBodichon.jpg
Ventnor painted by Barbara Bodichon

Early on, Barbara showed a force of character and breadth of sympathies that would win her a prominent place among philanthropists and social workers. She and a group of friends began to meet regularly in the 1850s in Langham Place in London to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This became one of the first organised women's movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women's Property Committee. In 1854, she published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women,[2] which was useful in promoting the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. During this period she became close friends with the artist Anna Mary Howitt, for whom she sat on several occasions.[3]

In 1857, she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugène Bodichon, and although wintering for many years in Algiers, she continued to lead the movements she had initiated on behalf of Englishwomen.[4]

File:Barbara Bodichon.jpg
Barbara Bodichon
Barbara Bodichon's name on the Reformers Monument, Kensal Green Cemetery

In 1858, she set up the English Women's Journal, an organ for discussing employment and equality issues directly concerning women, in particular manual or intellectual industrial employment, expansion of employment opportunities, and reform of laws pertaining to the sexes.

In 1866, cooperating with Emily Davies, she came up with a scheme to extend university education to women. The first small experiment in this at Hitchin developed into Girton College, Cambridge, to which Madame Bodichon gave liberally of her time and money.[4]

Bodichon was a Unitarian, who wrote of Theodore Parker: He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul. (Lingwood, 2008)

Despite all her public interests, she found time for society and her favourite art of painting. She studied under William Holman Hunt. Her water colours, exhibited at the Salon, the Royal Academy and elsewhere, showed great originality and talent, and were admired by Corot and Daubigny. Her London salon included many of the literary and artistic celebrities of her day. She was George Eliot's most intimate friend, and according to her, the first to recognise the authorship of Adam Bede. Her personal appearance is said to be described in that of Romola. Madame Bodichon died at Robertsbridge, Sussex, on 11 June 1891.[4]


In 2007, the British equal-rights campaigner and feminist Lesley Abdela came across the grave of Barbara Bodichon in the tiny churchyard of Brightling, East Sussex, about 50 miles (80 km) from London. It was in a state of disrepair, with its railings rusted and breaking away, and the inscription on the tomb almost illegible.[5] The historian Dr Judith Rowbotham at Nottingham Trent University issued an appeal for funds to restore the grave and its surroundings. About £1,000 was raised. The money was used under local supervision to sand-blast the railings and repaint them, and to clean the granite tomb.

See also

English women painters from the early 19th century who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art

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Further reading

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  • Matthews, Jacquie. Barbara Bodichon: Integrity in diversity (1827–1891) in Spender, Dale (ed.) Feminist theorists: Three centuries of key women thinkers, Pantheon 1983, pp. 90–123 ISBN 0-394-53438-7

External links