Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism

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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.

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 , 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.

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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. 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. 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! 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.

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Though he soon discovered her work, she was determined to publish it in spite of his disapproval. In , 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 , 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. 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 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.

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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 , obviously hurt by Carpenter's rejection of her affections.

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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. She was involved in the national women's suffrage campaign, argued to improve women's educational and employment opportunities, and was a vocal critic of marriage. She was instrumental in the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act, which made domestic violence grounds for legal separation.

She also agitated on behalf of and helped to write the provisions for the Cruelty to Animals Act, which sought to limit the use of live animals in scientific research. Her work is now the subject of important critical attention as scholarly approaches to women's writing, which tended to focus on fiction and poetry and research on feminist journalism, which tended to approach it as a separate or marginalized formation, have broadened to include women's work in the established press.

Cobbe's importance to Victorian feminism and women's writing in the period is indisputable. Writing for newspapers, periodical titles, and for social movements, her work used the genres of the established newspaper and periodical press — the article, the leader, the letter to the editor — to situate feminist discourse within dailyness and recurrence, creating new audiences for feminist ideas, and establishing feminism as an accepted frame of reference. Born December 4, on the family estate at Newbridge, Ireland, Cobbe was the youngest of five children and the only daughter of Charles Cobbe, an Anglo-Irish landowner.

Her autobiography, Life of Frances Power Cobbe, by Herself , recounts a happy childhood, portraying warm relationships with an affectionate mother and brothers in spite of a distant father.

By her own account, Cobbe's interest in the serious study of religious questions was well-established by early adulthood, and she maintained a committed schedule of self-education. Her first publication, Essays on the Theory of Intuitive Morals , examines Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy and Cobbe's own theistic beliefs. After the death of her father in November , Cobbe travelled extensively in Europe before moving to England where she was determined to make her own living. Returning to Europe in , as Italy-based correspondent for the Daily News , Cobbe was introduced to the Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd, who would become her lifelong partner.

The articles made her reputation as an essayist and brought her to the attention of the growing feminist movement organized around the activities of the Langham Place Circle. Throughout the s and s, Cobbe was a highly social and energetic, if sometimes difficult, colleague in the feminist cause. Her writing on women's suffrage, marriage law, domestic violence, and women's education and employment, was a powerful vehicle for Victorian feminism. She wrote regularly in the leading periodicals, and was hired as leader writer for the London Echo —75 , the nation's first halfpenny daily paper.

As a periodical essayist, Cobbe was the only woman of her day to write regularly on women's issues from a feminist perspective in the established press.

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She was also one of the first women employed by a newspaper as a regular staff member. Her autobiography rightfully highlights the importance of her journalism work.

Addressing an audience of over one hundred thousand in the Echo , the largest circulation to date of an evening paper, Cobbe's leader-writing is a milestone in Victorian feminism. Through her work as a journalist, Cobbe circulated feminist ideas beyond the feminist community, conveying to an everyday audience how differently the day's news — a murder, a law suit, a divorce — reads through feminist lenses.

Frances Power Cobbe. Feminism and the Woman Question in Early Victorian.

Emily Davies. Victorian feminists Clarendon paperbacks.

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