Frances Power Cobbe Woman of Substance

My novel, Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, is littered with mentions of strong women who shaped history in large and small ways, ways that for the most part have been erased or ignored. So, in this blog I have taken to celebrating those women and their contributions to our world.

Today I am celebrating Frances Power Cobbe.

In my novel, Frances Power Cobbe appears as the ancestor of Dr. Cobbe, professor of women’s studies at Barnard College. At the end of the first class of Women in History, Dr. Cobbe says to her students that becoming aware of issues is the first step, and she hopes they will each take up a cause as part of their life’s work. She quotes one of her relatives in Ireland, Frances Power Cobbe who liked to say, “Every woman who has any margin of time or money to spare should adopt a public interest, a philanthropic undertaking or a social reform, and give to that cause whatever time and work she may be able to afford.”

Later in the semester, Joan (the point of view character in the novel), has a meeting with President Barrows, which reduces Joan to tear. Dr. Cobbe found her crying on the steps of Millbank Hall, and becomes her guardian dragon. But Joan is ambivalent about that. She put her trust in another faculty member, only to have that trust trampled. But Joan is desperate, and decides she is going to have to take a risk and trust Dr. Cobbe, because she doesn’t know what else to do. When Joan gets to her office, she figures out why Dr. Cobbe smells so funny.

Dr. Cobbe is a cat lady. She only has two cats now. She used to have five. She brings both of her cats to the office with her. Her office is littered with cat toys. She noticed me staring, laughed and said, “I come by it honestly. I was named for my late cousin, Frances Power Cobbe, a suffragette and anti-vivisectionist back home in Ireland.” She said an anti-vivisectionist supports science and research, but not in ways that harm animals. Dr. Cobbe brings her cats with her on her long teaching days. That’s nice, but the kitty litter box needs changing.

So, who is this Frances Power Cobbe, ancestor of my fictional Professor Cobbe?

Frances Power Cobbe was born in Dublin on 4th December 1822. Cobbe was educated at home, except for two years at a school in Brighton. According to her biographer, Barbara Caine: “Cobbe regarded her schooling as an interruption to her education and a complete waste of time. The noise, frivolity, pointless routine, and complete lack of intellectual stimulation contrasted strongly with her pleasurable life at home, spent in close contact with her accomplished and beloved mother.”

In the early 1860s, Frances moved to London where she earned her living by writing for newspapers and journals. In 1861, her articles about women’s rights brought her into contact with leading feminists such as Barbara Bodichon and Lydia Becker. She also became friendly with John Stuart Mill, who encouraged her in her writing. Cobbe also became a member of the Married Women’s Property Committee. 1867 she joined the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Cobbe was also involved in the campaign against vivisection. In 1870 she advocated strengthening the law on experiments on animals, and over the next few years became one of the leaders of the British anti-vivisection movement. It has been argued that there may have “been an identification on her part between man’s brutality to animals and his brutality to women.”

Women in Philosophy tells us that Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was an Anglo-Irish reformer who wrote about moral theory and moral epistemology, religion, evolution, duties to animals, feminism, welfare, mind and body, unconscious thought and aesthetics. In 1897 the American suffragist Frances Willard said of Cobbe that ‘distinguished critical authorities have assigned her the rank of greatest among living English women’. Cobbe’s biographer Ellen Mitchell agrees: ‘By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, she was the most important British woman writer of intellectual prose’. Cobbe’s ideas were widely discussed–by Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick amongst others. Yet after her death Cobbe fell rapidly out of view, as has so often been the case for philosophical women.


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