Frances Power Cobbe
Woman on a Mission Born to Conform
By Karly Noelle Abreu
The Victorian era was a tumultuous time characterized by rapid industrialization, experimentation, innovation, and social hierarchy. It was a strange period, in which expansion of thought was lauded in many fields yet abhorred in others. Enter into this unusual time a very unusual woman, Frances Power Cobbe, who would do her own part to turn this already unsteady era on its head.
Frances was born in December of 1822 into the notable and eminent Cobbe family, which included such noteworthy figures as Charles Cobbe, the Archbishop of Dublin from 1743 to 1765. Frances spent her early life in the Newbridge House on the family estate. The youngest of five children and the only girl, Frances was raised by her strict and devout parents, Charles and Frances. Watching her brothers go out into the world to pursue their fortunes and careers, young Frances felt the distinct sting of powerlessness when she was sent away to a girls’ school in Brighton at the age of 14. She spent two years there, not having been sent to gain any sort of viable education, but simply in the interest of fashionability. Having already learned to educate herself, Cobbe viewed school as a waste of time, finding the exploits of her classmates frivolous and dull.
When she was 18, Frances was sent into society, where she suffered from the same problem as at school: a lack of intellectual engagement. Finding herself bored with dances and balls, Cobbe began to question her place as a woman in society, with no interesting prospects and nothing expected of her. With her mother’s health failing and her interest in social events utterly spent, Cobbe took over as housekeeper to Newbridge House in order to detach herself from the public sphere and look after her mother. The lack of stimulation beginning to weight heavily on her, Cobbe threw herself into independent study, engaging her mind with literature, geometry, astronomy, philosophy, and writing.
During this time, Cobbe, who had been raised a strict Arminian Christian, was deeply impacted by her mother’s waning health as well as her intellectual pursuits. She began to question her religious beliefs, and concluded that somewhere along the way her “efforts to believe in orthodox Christianity” had “ceased altogether.” Unwilling to completely abandon religion, Cobbe declared herself to be an agnostic and, later, a theist, to the despair of her dying mother. Inspired by the books she read, notably Theodore Parker’s “Discourse of Religion,” Frances came to regard what she called “divine inspiration” not as “miraculous and therefore incredible, but as normal and in accordance with the natural relations of the infinite and finite spirit.”
Her father scoffed at her ideas as impractical and, in 1848, the year after her mother’s death, he sent her away to live on a farm run by one of her brothers. While there, Cobbe struck up a correspondence with Theodore Parker, whose Unitarian views had so moved her. She returned home to her housekeeping duties ten months later and anonymously published a treatise entitled “An Essay on the Intuitive Theory of Morals” in 1855. In it, Cobbe posited that morality is not grounded in present happiness, church laws or any outward influence, but is inherent inside everyone intellectually, and that this universally-ingrained morality is proof of the existence of God. The book would go through four editions in the next fifty years.
We look forward with hope and confidence to find that the hour wherein the intelligence of America awakens to the true nature of Vivisection, will be the hour of the condemnation thereof by your consciences, and the prohibition thereof by your laws.
– Frances Power Cobbe
Vivisection in America, 1889.
“Love is greater than Knowledge”
Two years after her first work was published, Cobbe’s father died and she was given a small inheritance, which she used to move to Bristol. She also spent eleven months traveling through Italy, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, alone and unchaperoned. Dissatisfied with simply writing and exploring the world but making no lasting impact, Cobbe desired to become more of service to the less fortunate. Of this revelation, she wrote: “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 1858 Cobbe was introduced to Mary Carpenter, who had set up a school for abandoned and delinquent children. Cobbe threw herself into becoming Carpenter’s assistant, but her health did not allow her to keep up with the pace, and she had to break the arrangement.
Upon recovery, Cobbe began working as a journalist for various papers such as “The Echo” and “The Standard,” where with renewed enthusiasm she pursued work for greater social change, this time with her most powerful tool: her pen. She visited poorhouses and hospitals and wrote dozens of pamphlets from 1861 on, empathizing with the destitute, particularly women and children. Fascinated by her trips to Italy, Cobbe began to visit there many times, where she met her inspiration, Theodore Parker, and became a correspondent for the “London Daily News.” While in Florence in 1863, Cobbe was deeply moved by witnessing animal experiments. This experience weighed more and more heavily on her mind as time passed.
Cobbe soon moved to London full time and, inspired by the conditions she witnessed as a journalist, threw herself fully into the cause of women’s rights. She was introduced to leading feminists of the age, and became a member of the Married Women’s Property Committee and the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was moved by victims of abuse and appalled by social norms, which would not allow abused women to divorce. She wrote a pamphlet on the subject entitled “Wife Torture in England,” which exposed the high levels of abuse women endured at the hands of their husbands. Her strong arguments and the resultant social outcry were major factors in helping the Matrimonial Causes Act pass in 1878, which allowed women the right of legal separation on the grounds of assault and abuse.
Cobbe recalled her experience in the girls’ school, where she was not encouraged intellectually or vocationally solely because of her gender. Fresh from her experiences among the abused, she took on the topic of economic independence for women. She wrote a pamphlet on the topic called “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors” in which she argued that men wanted to keep women dependent in order to rule over them.
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?
– Frances Power Cobbe
Vivisection in America, 1889.
A Voice for the Voiceless
Always moved by the less fortunate and especially by those who could not speak for themselves, Cobbe turned her vigor in the campaign for women’s rights just as ardently to animal rights. It has been noted that there may have “been an identification on her part between man’s brutality to animals and his brutality to women.” It seems likely Cobbe did make a mental comparison of the abuse of women and children to that of animals. In her mind, the same principal applied: women and children were utterly dependent on their husbands and fathers, just as animals were completely reliant on humans. Before campaigning in full force, Cobbe garnered sympathy for her cause when, inspired by her beloved and constant companion, a dog named Hajjin, she wrote “Confessions of a Lost Dog,” a short fictional account of the hardships a stray dog endures in the streets of London before finally finding a safe and loving home. The story was told from the point of view of the titular dog, and used simple, human language, building sympathy between reader and animal narrator. It was a widely published work, and brought attention to the welfare of animals in the city – but that was not enough for the always-energetic writer.
Cobbe still remembered the animal research she had witnessed in Italy, and was spurred afresh by the highly-public animal experiments of scientists in England, as well as the general anthropocentric attitude of so-called progressives. She was enraged in particular by vivisection, the practice of dissecting animals while they are still alive for the purposes of scientific study. In 1870, she began to protest in earnest against the mistreatment of animals in experiments and advocated laws for greater protection of animals in scientific usage. She sparked controversy in 1884 for calling down shame on the clergy for not speaking out against animal abuse, and wrote extensively on the incompatibility of faith in a loving God and tolerance for animal abuse. She wrote many pamphlets, including a full exposé on vivisection entitled “Vivisection in America,” filled with horrifying descriptions of animal abuse and murder using forceful, visceral language. Her ultimate aim was not just to affect change in her own country, but across the globe.
In 1875, Cobbe founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection. The vocality of this group, and the full impact of Cobbe’s pamphlets in the public consciousness, led to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which did not abolish animal experimentation, but at least called for its regulation and oversight. Despite this major triumph, Cobbe felt the Act did not do enough, as it exempted physiologists and failed to protect animals under experimentation if the administrators adhered to the rules and obtained a government license. Still, it was a highly visible Act, and a triumph for animal welfare in the public consciousness.
In 1884, Cobbe retired to Wales with her partner Mary Lloyd and her dog Hajjin. She penned an autobiography in 1894, the only complete chronicle that exists of her life to this day. She died in April of 1904, having inspired both the Women’s and Animal Rights Movements for decades to come with the passion and power of her conviction. Cobbe believed firmly in the immortality of the human soul, a fact which is obvious in her fiercely-worded works for both human and animal rights. She preached that one’s actions on earth mattered eternally; that kindness and protection of those who suffered was not just helpful for the good of society, but necessary for everlasting peace and infinite bliss.
Frances Power Cobbe (1822 – 1904) was an Irish writer, suffragist, social reformer, and founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.
Hajjin was Frances Power Cobbe’s companion canine and traveled with her and her partner, Mary Lloyd, to Wales after Cobbes retired.