Frances Power Cobbe was an Irish writer, social reformer, anti-vivisection activist, and leading women’s suffrage campaigner.
Cobb was born in 1822 in Newbridge House on her family estate in what is now Donabate, Co. Dublin. The Cobbe family included noteworthy figures like Charles Cobbe, the Archbishop of Dublin from 1743 to 1765. Cobbe was the youngest of five children and the only girl, which meant that she was denied access to education. She was a voracious reader and began to educate herself through her love of reading. At the age of 14 she was sent to a girls’ school in Brighton. The school was merely a distraction from her independent studies. Her attendance at the school was in the interest of fashion rather than education and she hated her time there. The school was designed to prepare her for society, but she resisted attempts to turn her into a socially acceptable young lady.
At 18, Cobbe was introduced to society as a debutant but despised the balls she was forced to attend and convinced her family to allow her to take over housekeeping duties at the family home as her mother was ill. She continued her studies, educating herself in history, literature, geometry, astronomy, philosophy, and writing. She began to question her faith, which distressed her Evangelical parents. In 1845 Cobbe read Theodore Parker’s Discourse of Religion which lead her to declare herself first Agnostic, and later a Theist. In 1848, a year after her mother’s dead she was sent to live with her brother because of her views on religion. After ten months, she was allowed to return and resume her duties as housekeeper. In 1855, Cobbe published an essay entitled the Theory of Intuitive Morals in which she stated that the morality that occurs within everyone is independent of church laws or any outward influence, she claims this inherent morality was evidence of the existence of god. The book went through four editions in the next fifty years and further upset her father.
In 1857, Cobbe received a modest inheritance upon her father’s death, and used this to travel for 11 months, journeying through Italy, Greece, Egypt, Palestine and Syria while camping along in the desert before settling in Bristol. Cobbe felt that she should be of service to the less fortunate, and after being introduced to Mary Carpenter, who had founded a school for abandoned and delinquent children, became her assistant. Cobbe could not keep up with Carpenter, and resigned from her position after a year. She moved to London and turned her attention to writing. As a journalist she wrote for a number of papers including “The Echo” and “The Standard”. She also wrote books, including ,Broken Lights: an Inquiry into the Present Condition and Future Prospects of Religious Faith (1964) which would be her biggest literary success. Cobbe used her writing to advocate for working for social change writing a number of pamphlets from 1861 onwards and visiting poorhouses and hospitals.
In 1861, her articles on women’s rights lead to her meeting leading feminists like Barbara Bodichon and Lydia Becker. She became a member of the Married Women’s Property Committee and London Society for Women’s Suffrage and used her position as a writer to expose the conditions women were being subjected to, including the high levels of spousal abuse women were enduring. In response, she wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Wife Torture’ which proposed that if a husband assaults his wife it should be grounds for legal separation. The pamphlet, and the outcry it inspired, influenced the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1978 which gave a wife the right to a separation with maintenance, and with custody of any child under ten years of age. Cobbe also drew on her experiences at her finishing school and the fact that she was sidelined because of her gender while she was a child. She wrote “Criminal, Idiots, Women and Minors”, which detailed her idea that men wanted to keep women dependent to exert their control over them.
In 1864, Cobbe began living with her partner, sculptor Mary Lloyd whom she referred to alternately as “husband,” wife,“ and “dear friend”. The two had met in Italy in 1961 and on one of Cobbe’s return visits to the country, she witnessed animal experiments which disturbed her greatly. In 1870, she turned her attention to animal cruelty, beginning by writing “Confessions of Lost Dog,” designed to inspire sympathy and draw attention to the welfare of animals in the city. She then began advocating for strengthening the law on experiments on animals, and over the next few years became one of the leaders of the British anti-vivisection movement. In 1875, she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV), which was the world’s first organisation campaigning against animal experiments. A year later, her campaigning led to Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which called for the regulation of animal experimentation but stopped short of abolishing it altogether.
In 1884, Cobbe caused controversy when she called out the clergy for their silence on animal abuse and wrote extensively on the incompatibility of faith in a loving God and tolerance for animal abuse. Cobbe wrote a full exposé on vivisection entitled “Vivisection in America,” detailing animal abuse and murder in graphic detail. She aimed to affect change in both her own country, and across the globe. That same year, she retired to Wales with her partner, Mary Lloyd where she continued her campaigning for animal rights. In 1989, she founded the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) which is still active today, under the name Cruelty Free International. Cobbe died in 1904, an inspiration for both women’s rights and animal right’s campaigners. Her name is listed on the south face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.