Cobbe, Frances Power (1822–1904)

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Cobbe, Frances Power (1822–1904)

Prolific Irish writer, journalist, and feminist who wrote and spoke on a wide range of issues but is best known for her work on wife abuse and antivivisection. Born Frances Power Cobbe in Dublin, Ireland, on December 4, 1822; died at Hengwrt, Wales, on April 5, 1904; daughter of Charles and Frances (Conway) Cobbe; never married; no children; lifelong companion of Mary Lloyd.

Lived at home with her family in Ireland for 36 years; left home after her father died (1857); lived and worked with Mary Carpenter (1858–59); moved to London and began writing for several newspapers; published several hundred pamphlets on various reform causes, including wife abuse, suffrage, post-secondary education for women, and antivivisection; founded antivivisection association, Victoria Street Society (1875); left London with her lifelong companion Mary Lloyd and settled in Wales; founded the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (1898).

Selected publications:

Essays on the Theory of Intuitive Morals (1855); Essays on the Pursuits of Women (1863); (editor) The Collected Works of Theodore Parker (14 vols., 1863–66); Studies New and Old of Ethical and Social Subjects (1866); "The Rights of Man and the Claims of Brutes," in Fraser's Magazine (1870); Darwinism in Morals, and Other Essays (1872); "Wife Torture in England," in Contemporary Review (1878); The Duties of Women (1881); The Life of Frances Power Cobbe (2 vols., 1894).

Since the mid-18th century, the doctrine of separate spheres for women and men had been gaining strength and influence. Women were assigned to the private and tranquil world of the home where, as wives and mothers, they fulfilled their destinies as caregivers and the guardians of morality. The public sphere, on the other hand, was the preserve of men and was concerned with the busy world of economics and politics. By the 19th century, however, there were many women who chose not to marry and who, though they were increasingly seen as being redundant and a social problem, were joining the growing number of married women whose philanthropic activities grew into a widespread movement for the reform of women's political, economic, and legal rights. Frances Power Cobbe was an important participant in the middle-class women's movement of 19th-century England.

She was born in Dublin on December 4, 1822, the only daughter of Charles Cobbe, an Anglo-Irish landowner, and Frances Conway Cobbe . The young girl grew up on a large estate and was, for the great majority of her childhood, educated at home. At age 14, Frances Cobb was sent away for two years to a fashionable boarding school in Brighton where she was not only miserably homesick but found the experience intellectually unfulfilling. In later years, she condemned the boarding-school system as one that had been "devised to attain the maximum of cost and labour and the minimum of solid results." Upon her return home to Ireland, Cobbe occupied herself with a relentless schedule of reading and studying along with the management of the household.

Frances' mother, whom she adored, was bedridden during most of the girl's adolescence and her father remained a distant and remote figure. As a young teenager with a voracious appetite for learning, Cobbe began to doubt basic beliefs that she had been raised to follow, many of which centered around religion. As early as age 11, she questioned the validity of Christ's miracles; by her early 20s, she had abandoned many of the basic precepts of Christianity. When her beloved mother died in 1847, 25-year-old Frances had reached a crisis in her religious faith. In addition, she was now living alone in the great family estate house with her father who had ignored her throughout most of her childhood. Soon after her mother died, Cobbe announced to him that she had rejected traditional Christianity and would no longer participate in family prayers or attend church. Outraged, her father banished her from the house. She lived with one of her brothers for a short while until she was readmitted to her father's house a few months later.

Cobbe's relationship with her father was never easy. Historian Barbara Caine has determined that it was "through the rebellion she staged against her father's attempt to dictate her religious beliefs and observances, that Cobbe established the basis for her feminist beliefs." Frances finally settled upon a new set of religious beliefs, which were heavily influenced by the works of Theodore Parker, an American theologian. For Cobbe, God was no longer a harsh, masculine judge, but a being that, as Caine asserts, "combined both masculine and feminine qualities and thus incorporated reverence for women as well as for men." Cobbe believed that God was a rational being and that moral law was readily available to everyone through intuition.

I have felt all my life an irresistible impulse to rush in where-ever anyone is oppressed and try to deliver him, her, or it, as the case may be, from the adversary!

—Frances Power Cobbe

These religious and philosophical convictions were presented in her first published book, Essays on the Theory of Intuitive Morals. Like many Victorian women writers, Cobbe produced this work in secret, working late into the night when her household duties were completed and she was out of sight from her father's watchful eye. Though he soon discovered her work, she was determined to publish it in spite of his disapproval. In 1855, her wish was fulfilled, but she bowed to her father's authority by having the work published anonymously.

Immediately after the death of her father in 1857, Cobbe traveled throughout Europe and the East. During this trip, she met several unmarried women in Italy who were living together independently and who had developed close and sometimes intimate relationships. Cobbe would return to Italy several times over the course of the next 20 years, meeting and corresponding with many famous and influential writers, poets, and philosophers of the 19th century, including Theodore Parker whom she met in Florence shortly before he died. Some years later, she would edit all 14 volumes of his works.

Cobbe's skill at writing was to hold her in good stead. The family estate now passed into the hands of her eldest brother who moved into the house with his wife. Frances' father left her a legacy of £200 per year, which was less than she had received when she was living at home and was far less than she needed to maintain her current standard of living. Nonetheless, and in spite of receiving an invitation to remain in the house where she had spent the past 35 years, Frances refused to become dependent upon her brother and set out to make her own living by writing.

She also took up a philanthropic enterprise. Thus, in November 1858 she joined Mary Carpenter , whose work with delinquent children she had long admired, in Bristol. The two women lived together in Carpenter's school for girls, Red Lodge House. Cobbe, however, soon became dismayed not only by the amount of work that Carpenter expected, but also by the asceticism of Carpenter's lifestyle. Long accustomed to bountiful meals, good wine, and lengthy conversation about literature, politics, and religion, Cobbe found Carpenter's sparse dinners, and relentless focus upon her children, uncomfortable and alienating. The women were incompatible in temperament. The more Frances demanded a close companionship with Mary, the more Mary strove for privacy and independence. The scheme was short-lived, and Cobbe left Red Lodge in 1859, obviously hurt by Carpenter's rejection of her affections. Looking back upon the experience many years later, Cobbe concluded: "I could be of no real comfort or service as an inmate of her house; she cannot bear the idea that anyone might expect companionship from her. She would have liked me better if I had been a delinquent."

Cobbe soon found a more amicable companion in Mary Lloyd whom she had met sometime in 1858 or 1859. The two women lived together for the next 34 years in what can only be described as a "female marriage." After her return to London, Cobbe began what became a lengthy and prolific career in journalism. She wrote essays and articles for several publications, including Macmillan's Magazine, Fraser's Magazine, Modern Review, Cornhill Magazine, and the Quarterly Review. From 1868 until 1875, she was the lead writer for the Echo and later for the Standard. Although she noted that her eldest brother made more money every year from the family property than she had received for life, Cobbe found journalism "a delightful profession, full of interest, and promise of ever-extending usefulness. It is pre-eminently healthy, being so full of variety and calling for so many different mental faculties one after another."

Cobbe wrote on a variety of topics during her lengthy career as a journalist, but she is best known for her work on women's issues and anti-vivisection. She first became interested in the rights of women when she worked with Mary Carpenter. Although many of her ideas about the roles of women were conservative, her desire to help raise the status of women was of the utmost importance. "I am a woman," she noted. "Nothing concerning the interests of women is alien to me." As such, she joined many of the new women's organizations that were being formed in the 1860s and '70s and met and corresponded with some of the leading figures in the 19th-century women's movement in England. She joined the Society for Women's Suffrage and the Married Women's Property Rights Group. In 1862, she read a paper at the Social Science Congress advocating admission of women to universities. At the time, she remembered being "the butt of ridicule," but her wishes were prophetic. Although it took another 50 years before Oxford and Cambridge Universities admitted women, the 1870s saw the establishment of several women's colleges that provided higher education for young women.

Cobbe felt most proud of her work on behalf of battered women. In 1878, she wrote an influential pamphlet entitled "Wife Torture in England." In the article, she recognized that the ultimate cause of wife abuse was women's inferior legal, social, and economic status:

The notion that a man's wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property, is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery. I conceive then, that the common idea of the inferiority of women, and the special notion of the rights of husbands, form the undercurrent of feeling which induces a man, when for any reason he is infuriated, to wreak his violence on his wife.

She worked continuously to bring wife abuse to the attention of Parliament. The debate centered upon a split among M.P.s as to whether flogging should be used as punishment for men convicted of brutal assault. Cobbe, however, saw punishment as ineffectual, since she knew that husbands would be even more brutal towards their wives after returning home from a flogging. Instead, she advocated giving the wife the power to separate from her husband; the power to implement an Act of Parliament whereby a wife could obtain a separation order when her husband was convicted of an aggravated assault upon her. Although Cobbe received the support of several male M.P.s for this legislation, she was well aware that women, without parliamentary representation, were at the mercy of men. The reason why women were still being abused was caused, she claimed, by "the simple fact that, under our present constitution, women, having no votes, can only exceptionally and through favour bring pressure to bear to force attention even to the most crying of injustices under which they suffer." Fortunately, Cobbe's influence captured the attention of enough like-minded M.P.s, and, on May 27, 1878, an Act of Parliament was passed whereby wives were allowed to separate from a husband convicted of aggravated assault.

Frances Power Cobbe continued to write about women's issues throughout the 1870s until her attention and energy was directed towards the antivivisection movement. Vivisection (experimentation upon live animals) was a common practice in most medical schools of Western Europe. To Cobbe, however, it represented the most abhorrent form of cruelty. Throughout her life, she held a great affection for animals; she had cared for dogs since childhood. While growing up in Ireland, she knew that the hunting, shooting, and fishing that her father and brothers enjoyed were acceptable sports; she, herself, had learned to fish. From age 16, however, when she began to question the basis of Christianity, she gave up fishing because she could "no longer take pleasure in giving pain to any creature of God."

In 1870, she published an article in Fraser's Magazine, entitled "The Rights of Man and the Claims of Brutes," in which she outlined the moral questions involved in vivisection. By 1874, she had drafted a petition to obtain parliamentary legislation to regulate experimentation upon only those animals that were under complete anaesthesia. In May 1875, the government established a Royal Commission to investigate the issue. Cobbe, however, was impatient and, at age 53, formed her own antivivisection association the same year. Although several antivivisection organizations were established over the next few years, Cobbe's Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals was the most prestigious, because she was able to attract influential political and literary figures to sit on its committees. The Society counted as its members Dr. George Hoggan, Leslie Stephen, the countess of Camperdown , Lord Shaftesbury, the archbishop of York, the marquis of Bute, and the bishops of Gloucester, Bristol, and Manchester.

In August 1876, the British Government passed the Vivisection Act, which limited experimentation upon live animals to licensed persons. Much to Cobbe's anger and dismay, the Act rescinded a clause that would have incorporated her plea to have experiments performed under anesthesia. Undaunted, Cobbe continued to write and petition, and in 1876 the Victoria Street Society decided to work for the total prohibition of vivisection. Throughout the 1870s and '80s, Cobbe worked tirelessly on the anti-vivisection campaign and by her own estimation published over 400 pamphlets, books, and leaflets. She founded and wrote for the journal Zoophilist and until 1884 was the secretary, as well as the driving force, behind the Victoria Street Society. In 1884, she finally resigned and was paid an annuity of £100 per year as a token for her efforts.

Cobbe's work in the antivivisection movement was closely related to her work in the women's movement. She was a prominent member of the philanthropic activities of many 19th-century middle-class Englishwomen who entered the public sphere out of a sense of duty to reform society. Cobbe herself felt that philanthropy was a necessary activity for women.

Every woman who has any margin of time or money to spare should adopt some one public interest, some philanthropic undertaking, or some special agitation of reform, and give to that cause whatever time and work she may be able to afford.

After she retired from the Victoria Street Society and received a large legacy from a female friend, Cobbe and her lifelong companion Mary Lloyd left London and moved to Hengwrt in Wales. Although Cobbe rarely mentions Lloyd in her autobiography, Mary's death in 1896 touched her deeply. In a letter to fellow-feminist Millicent Garrett Fawcett , Cobbe wrote:

The end of such a friendship—thirty-four years of mutual affection—is of course a mortal blow, and I have yet to learn how I am to live without the one who has shared all my thoughts and feelings so long.

Cobbe's last years were spent alone in Wales. She continued to campaign for the abolition of vivisection and in 1898 formed the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection after she learned that her compatriots in the Victoria Street Society had altered their approach by continuing to support experimentation under anesthetics. Frances Power Cobbe died, aged 82, at Hengwrt on April 5, 1904.


Banks, Olive. "Frances Power Cobbe," in Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists, Volume I, 1800–1930. NY: New York University Press, 1985, pp. 53–55.

Caine, Barbara. Victorian Feminists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Cobbe, Frances Power. Life of Frances Power Cobbe. 2 Vols. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1984.

suggested reading:

French, Richard. Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Spender, Dale. Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Margaret McIntyre , Trent University, Peterborough, Canada

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Cobbe, Frances Power (1822–1904)

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