ON this day in 1822, the Anglo-Irish writer, philosopher, and social activist Frances Power Cobbe was born.
This unconventional, larger than life Victorian lady hailed from a line of esteemed Irish notables, including Archbishop Charles Cobbe, the Primate of Ireland from 1743 to 1765.
Cobbe’s sharp mind enabled her to engage with some of the most pressing issues of her day, from religion to utilitarianism, and trade intellectual blows with some of their finest – usually male – proponents.
Before rising to become an acclaimed pamphleteer, Cobbe worked at the Red Lodge Reformatory and took up lodgings with its owner, Mary Carpentor, another outspoken social reformer.
Given their forceful personalities, it is not surprising that the two women clashed, causing Cobbe to eventually part ways with Carpentor and the school in 1859, after being there for only a year.
When Cobbe was on a trip to Rome in 1861, she met the love of her life, a Welsh sculptor by the name of Mary Lloyd.
Like Cobbe, Mary was a non-conformist and a feminist, and so there was plenty of common ground on which to sow the seeds of their budding romance.
On their return from Italy, the pair lived together from 1864 until Lloyds death in 1896.
The loss of her best friend and lover of over 30 years was devastating for Cobbe.
Norena Shopland relayed in her book Frances and Mary, that friend and fellow writer Blanche Atkinson, said of Lloyd’s death: “The joy have life had gone [for Cobbe]”.
Throughout her busy and active life, Cobbe penned a series of influential pamphlets, whose lofty titles boast An Essay on Intuitive Morals, The Pursuits of Women, and The Hopes of the Human Race among their number.
She was also friends for a time with the great progenitor of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, who she urged to read the works of the utilitarian thinker John Stuart-Mill.
The friendship was not to last, though, as Cobbe lost Darwin’s trust when she edited and published a letter he had sent her.
Cobbe was not just a woman of words, but one of action as well.
She was a campaigner for women’s suffrage and education, as well as a staunch anti-vivisection activist.
Vivisection was a term for the dissection of animals, usually for medical research purposes.
While the practice commonly used anaesthesia to numb the pain, this wasn’t always the case.
It became an increasingly bitter point of contention in British society as anti-vivisection groups campaigned for it to be abolished.
These campaigners were often women – even Queen Victoria opposed the practice – and so intersected heavily with the burgeoning feminist movement of which Cobbe was also a part.
Cobbe also went to bat for women to have the right to attend university and study the same subjects as men.
If there was ever any doubt over the ability of women to compete in this area, Cobbe’s nimble mind and prodigious intellectual output offered a formidable corrective.
Frances Power Cobbe died on 5 April 1904 in Hengwrt, Wales, at the ripe old age of 81.