The Politics in Politics and Paint – Barbara Bodichon and Social Reform in Victorian Britain
November 28, 2018
The exhibition, Politics and Paint: Barbara Bodichon and the PRB (November 3 – February 3, 2019), examines the dual passions and pursuits of this pioneering spirit of the Victorian age. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s lifetime of concurrent engagement with art and social reform is not as incompatible as it might at first seem. During the second half of the 19th century, Bodichon was engaging in an act of social reform just by choosing a professional career of any kind. Raised as one of four illegitimate children of the liberal Member of Parliament, Ben Smith, Barbara was encouraged from a young age to speaking her mind–no matter how esteemed the company! The financial independence which her father provided allowed her the rare freedom for a Victorian woman to make life choices on her own terms.
Bodichon experienced, first hand, the exclusion and inequality of the male dominated art world. Barriers existed on all levels including training, access to quality schools, space and equipment, and venues for exhibition. The Royal Academy did not accept women into the school until the 1860s. Undeterred, in the mid-1850s, Barbara Bodichon sought out members of the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for art. A decade later she journeyed to Paris to study with Camille Corot and the Barbizon School of landscape painters. In both cases she received support and camaraderie from art world figures who were not satisfied with the status quo. Her struggles to build her professional practice strengthened her resolve to support others who were socially disadvantaged by taking up a sustained campaign for the education, employment, and emancipation of women.
Recognizing the myriad of stifling, and often conflicting laws concerning the rights of women, in 1854 Bodichon compiled and wrote a pamphlet entitled A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women. She questioned why women “… have no voice, and no influence recognized by the law, in the election of the representatives of the people, while they are otherwise acknowledged as responsible citizens, are eligible for many public offices, and required to pay all taxes…” She wryly concluded, “… [this] is an anomaly which seems to require some explanation.” The essay sparked the initiative which led to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, providing women limited rights to personal property and custody of their children.
This was followed by an essay entitled “Women and Work” in which Bodichon advocated for the inclusion of women in the work force as well as the necessity of all women to have an occupation. She urged, “No human being has a right to be idle…” and further, “We must each of us leave the world a little better than we found it…” She identified the work of the housewife and mother as worthy of recompense in a voice that brings to mind the rhetoric of 1960s feminism, writing, “Women who act as house-keepers, nurses, and instructors of their children, often do as much for the support of the household as their husbands; and it is very unfair for men to speak of supporting a wife and children when such is the case.”
Barbara Bodichon fearlessly put her written thoughts into action initiating a series of programs which contributed to the growing awareness and influence of the women’s movement. In 1858, she contributed to the launch of the English Woman’s Journal with her friend and fellow women’s rights reformer, Bessie Rayner Parkes. The Journal was an important information source for women on a broad range of topics. One example, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, was Bodichon’s cautionary illustration, The Effects of Tight Lacing, diagraming the physical dangers caused by corsets—an important accessory of 1850’s women’s fashion.
Located in Langham Place, London, the offices of the magazine became an essential gathering place for like-minded women. One of those who sought out the address, Jessie Boucherett, used the space to launch the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women which provided job listings and training for women. The Kensington Society—a group of about 50 women intent on furthering the rights of women—was born of the relationships developed through The Journal. In November of 1865 they gathered to debate, for the first time, the question of women’s suffrage. With the majority in favor, Bodichon led the charge by publishing a pamphlet entitled Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women in 1866.
Bodichon obtained the support of John Stuart Mill, Member of Parliament for Westminster, who agreed to put a bill forward in the House if she could get 100 signers for a petition in favor of the vote for women. The group, now united as the Women’s Suffrage Committee, presented 1,495 signatures on June 7, 1866. Although the bill failed to pass when presented in Parliament in spring 1867, it marked the beginning of a long campaign to obtain the vote for women which successfully concluded on November 21, 1918.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s many reformist strategies were initiated with the long game in mind. She understood the need to plant the seed and was patient in the knowledge that she might not live to see the successful results of her actions. One endeavor; however, was brought to fruition during her lifetime. The product of a liberal yet untraditional education, she was a lifetime advocate for accessible education for all. In her early years, she founded the Portman Hall School providing elementary education to all children regardless of gender, class, or economic level. Realizing the meagre opportunities for higher education for women, she worked with Emily Smith to found a small college in a rented house in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, in 1869. This facility was soon outgrown and a funding campaign was launched to purchase a plot of land on the outskirts of Cambridge. The first building of Girton College was completed and opened in 1874.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s work for the cause of women’s rights is particularly worthy of revisiting today in the light of contemporary actions to strengthen gender imbalances. Her accomplishments are even more laudable if we remember that, all the while, she continued her professional career as an artist—exhibiting and selling her paintings on the same playing field as her male counterparts.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection