As part of our project with the People's History Museum Voting for Change we have recently acquired, thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund money, a small but seminal booklet from 1856, A brief summary in plain language of the most important laws concerning women by Barbara Leigh Smith. Volunteer Eddie Setterington has researched it for us and found out more:
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was born out of wedlock in 1827 to milliner mother Anne Longden and father Benjamin Smith, a Whig MP, son of William Smith the radical abolitionist. As the oldest of five children she was raised in a household which encouraged free thinking and independence, with her father often hosting political refugees. She attended the ragged school her father had founded, in Vincent Square, Westminster, and in 1849 she entered Bedford Square Ladies College where she studied law, art, and political economy. She grew up in a time when woman were seen as second class citizens, however she was in a very unusual position of privilege both in her personal freedom and finances. For example, at 21 she, like all her siblings, was given an annual sum of £300 by her father.
In 1853 she, with others, petitioned for the rights of married women to earn their own money. It was law at that time that any money they made belonged to their husbands. Around this period she became involved with the Langham Place group, whose members also included Emily Faithfull, and Jessie Boucherett. Together they founded the English Woman’s Journal in 1858 of which Barbara Leigh Smith would be a leading member and writer.
Partly influenced by the Langham Place group, in 1854 Barbara wrote A brief summary in plain language of the most important laws concerning women. Whilst superficially a rather small booklet, with only about 20 pages or so, it is a highly significant document. She writes in the first half what she considers to be, as the title suggests, the most important laws concerning women. She focuses on three key issues: employment/earnings, inheritance, and marriage. She mentions other countries such as Turkey, America, Hungary and France where woman have a more, but not entirely, equal status.
The second half consists of her explanation of why the current laws are in need of change and how in part they are nonsensical. She talks about how in marriage a woman essentially forfeits her rights. When married, a woman does not inherit anything, instead it goes to her husband. He also has final say on their children’s upbringing - and any hope of a woman working independently is also at the discretion of her husband, who has to allow it first.
It was this work which was very influential in the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which gave women the right to earn their own money and made them eligible to inherit rather than it going to their husbands. By extending female property rights this legislation played an early part in the eventual granting to women of the right to vote.
Barbara continued to write in the Journal and to campaign for equal rights. Along with Emily Davies in 1866 she proposed university level education for woman; when this legislation was eventually passed she would study art under William Henry.
In 1857 she married the revolutionary French doctor Eugène Bodichon, the two often spending the winter in Algeria where she would write for the Journal and also spend time painting. By the time of her father’s death in 1860 she had a personal income of around £1,000 a year, so for the time she wasn’t exceptionally rich, but she’d never want for anything. She later went on a seven-month tour of the slave states of America and would write in the Journal of how the American sense of independence and freedom was in total contradiction of their use of slavery, something her grandfather fervently campaigned against.
Up until her death in 1891 she was giving regular night classes for local young people and continued to receive friends from the Langham Place group and the now widespread English Woman’s Journal.
Eddie Setterington, volunteer
Drop in to the Library on our Open Day on Saturday 1 April to see the booklet, along with other recent acquisitions linked to women's suffrage.
The Library also has other material about Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon which you can come and read, including:
Burton, Hester. Barbara Bodichon, 1827-1891. London, 1949 (Shelfmark A15)
Hirsch, Pam. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891 - feminist, artist and rebel. London, 1999 (Shelfmark I09)
Lacey, Candida. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group. New York, London, 1987 (Shelfmark J04)