Frances Power Cobbe dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of women, children and animals. She spoke out about domestic violence and founded the first organisations to campaign against animal testing.
Frances Power Cobbe was born in Dublin in 1822. She came from a well known family with quite a religious background; her ancestor, Charles Cobbe, had been the Archbishop of Dublin in the 1700s, a very important position at the time.
Frances was the only girl in her family and had four older brothers. While they were allowed a proper education Frances remained at home for most of her childhood, reading everything she could lay her hands on and educating herself. She was sent to a school in Brighton for a couple of years when she was 14, but this was more of a finishing school for girls and she said it did her no good whatsoever. She was pleased when she returned home and could once again return to her books.
As her mother grew ill, as the only girl Frances took on the housekeeping duties in their home. During this time, and as she continued to read lots of interesting books and ideas, she started to question the strict Christian religion of her family. Her mother and father didn’t like this at all. A year after her mother died her father was so displeased with her for thinking this way that he sent her away to live on a remote farm with her brother (although she didn’t stay away for long as he realised he needed her to keep up with the housework!)
This didn’t stop Frances from developing her own thoughts about life and religion, and in 1855 she wrote an ‘Essay on the Theory of Intuitive Morals’ and began to describe herself first as an agnostic, and then later as a theist.
When her father died Frances spent some time travelling around Europe alone (unusual for a woman at the time.) She found a particular love for Italy – and indeed it turned out to be a significant place for her for more than one reason.
Firstly it was the place that she met the love of her life. Mary Lloyd was a sculptor and became Frances’ life long partner. In her writing Frances referred to her as both ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.
Italy was also the place where she first encountered animal testing (vivisection) and began to feel strongly against it.
The faith she had developed led her to believe that she should act for the good of others and try to bring about a positive change in the world. She said;
“It came to me to see that Love is greater than Knowledge; that it is more beautiful to serve our brothers freely and tenderly than to ‘hive up learning with each studious year’.”
In London she began to earn a living as a journalist, and she used her writing to draw attention to causes she found important. She produced numerous pamphlets about various issues. One was called ‘Wife Torture’ and highlighted the huge problem of domestic violence in marriages. She strongly argued that women should be allowed to legally separate and divorce from their husbands on the grounds of abuse and assault. Her arguments helped lead to the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1878, which allowed just that. She said,
“The part of my work for women . . . to which I look back with most satisfaction, was that in which I laboured to obtain protection for unhappy wives, beaten, mangled, mutilated or trampled on by brutal husbands.”
She also wrote about men and the power they had over their wives power, putting forward the idea that because men held all the money and property in a marriage, they could use this power to go on treating their wives very badly (as without economic independence women were often helpless to leave their husbands.) She joined the Married Women’s Property Committee and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.
In 1870 her attention turned towards helping animals. She drew a parallel between the way that women and animals were both badly treated. She wrote a moving piece called ‘Confessions of a Lost Dog’, in which a stray dog tells it’s story, eventually finding a loving home. It was very popular and really raised awareness of the plight of some animals.
Her main focus became campaigning against vivisection and for laws to protect animals. She wrote more pamphlets and articles, she spoke at public meetings and gave lectures; she sent petitions to parliament and wrote letters to people explaining her (or rather the animals’) cause.
In 1875 she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV) and in 1878 the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) which is still going today!
She tried to raise awareness of animal testing around the world. In an address to America she said;
“Men and Women of America! Suffer us who are laboring to stop vivisection in our own country, to plead with you for its suppression in your younger land, where as yet the new vice of scientific cruelty cannot be deeply rooted…whether the practice be useful or useless, we ask you to reflect whether it be morally lawful—(not to speak of humane, or generous, or manly)—to seek to relieve our own pains at the cost of such unutterable anguish as has been already inflicted on unoffending creatures in the name of Science? You now know, to a certain extent, what it is that the advocates of vivisection really mean when they ask you to endow “Research.” Will you—bearing their experiments in mind—pay them to repeat such cruelties?”
In her pamplets she often used very graphic and upsetting descriptions of the experimentation being done to animals, including sometimes illustrations. When people were squeamish about these she declared,
“Do not refuse to look at these pictures. If you cannot bear to look at them, what must the
suffering be to the animals who undergo the cruelties that they represent?”
Her many endeavors, and the way she brought together the animal rights movement led to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which regulated and restricted experimentation on animals.
In 1884 Frances retired with Mary in Wales. They lived their together until Mary died. When Frances died 8 years later in 1904 she was buried next to Mary in a small churchyard near where they had lived.
Throughout her life Frances Power Cobbe was known for being very forthright, she always boldly spoke her mind in an effort to bring justice to those she saw as being wronged. While some saw her as being difficult, her compassion shone through. Author Louisa May Alcott said that when Frances was around “it was as if a great sunbeam had entered the room”.
She lived her life with courage and conviction, following her heart even when that meant becoming an outsider – whether that was with regard to her religion, politics or sexuality.
Find out more…
Frances wrote a book about her life called ‘The Life and Times of Frances Power Cobbe As Told by Herself’ which you can still buy today. It’s available here.
Many of Frances’ other writings can be viewed online. You can see a list of them, with links here.
Find out more about the BUAV and the work they do to protect animals here.
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