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Inspiring Women: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Samuel Laurence (1812–1884)Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, painting by Samuel Laurence

If your general impression of Pre-Raphaelite women is that they all drooped languidly among the lilies, beautiful and passive, their role confined to inspiring the famous men around them...well, think again. Quite a number of the women in Pre-Raphaelite/ Arts-&-Crafts circles led creative and courageous lives...and none more so than Barabara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891).

BLS BodichonHow can one not be inspired by Barbara Bodichon? She palled around with the likes of William Morris, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal; she was best friends with George Eliot; and she was a hugely important figure in the early British feminist movement. When she wasn't off climbing remote mountains with her women friends, her rucksack crammed with art supplies, she ran a popular "art & politics" salon in London, published the influential English Women's Journal, established the Society of Female Artists (while pressuring the Royal Academy schools to open their doors to women),  and was the co-founder (with Emily Davies) of Britain's first university college for women: Girton College, Cambridge. As part of the Langham Place Group, Barbara fought for four fundamental rights which benefit every woman in Britain to this day: the right to vote, the right of access to education, the right to work and keep ones own wages, and the right for married women to retain their own legal identity and property. She changed the world she lived in, while also pursuing love affairs, international adventures, and living a rich, full artist's life. She was vivid, she was brave, she was beloved by her many friends, she was mourned by thousands when she died...

Landscape with Iris

Head of Loch Lomond by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

...and then she was largely forgotten. Barabara's biographer, Pam Hirsch, posits one reason why: "She did many things, and historians seem to find it easier to understand and write about a man who pursued one 'great' goal. Women's lives and women's histories often look different, more diffuse and (perhaps) harder to evaluate."

In a piece on Barbara for the Hastings Press website [sadly, no longer online], Helena Wojtczak writes:

"When each of his children reached 21, [Ben Smith, Barbara's father] broke with tradition and custom by treating his daughters the same as his sons, giving them investments which brought Study of Sunflowerseach an annual income of £300," "The combination of an unconventional upbringing and a private income placed Barbara in an extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman. Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and expected only to marry, bear children and live in subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women. But she did not succumb to housewifery; she became a painter and social reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden."

Barbara herself said, charmingly, "I am one of the cracked people of the world and I like to herd with the cracked, such as...queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angels; and am never happy in an English genteel family life. I try to do it like other people, but I long always to be off on some wild adventure, or long to lecture on a tub at St. Giles, or go off to see the Mormons, or ride off into the interior on horseback alone and leave the world for a month..."

To learn more, I recommend Pam Hirsch's 1998 biography of the artist: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Artist and Rebel.

I wish I could have known Barbara Bodichon -- and her whole vibrant circle of smart, fearless women friends. I'd like to gather them all around the dinner table, along with a few smart, fearless friends of my own. We'd open a bottle of wine and sit back to to hear their stories -- marveling at all the things that have changed, and commiserating about all the things that haven't.  And then we'd tell them thank you. We'd tell them that we never take for granted the rights they fought so hard for. And that we hope we, too, can make the world just a little better for the ones who follow after.

Ventnor, Isle of Wight by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Sarzzet by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Edited in the autumn of 2016 to add: The Delware Art museum is planning an exhibition of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon's work in 2018.