Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was born on April 8, 1827, in Watlington, Norfolk. Born to parents Benjamin Leigh Smith and Anne Longden. Her parents were from differing classes with her father as high-ranking official and her mother as a milliner. They never married, because then Barbara’s mother and siblings would be chattel property. Barbara’s family name was influential as they were strong advocates for antislavery with radical views, with her father supporting anti-poverty, anti-slavery pro-women’s rights, etc.
When Barbara was seven, her mother (who would have educated the children) died of tuberculosis just after delivering their fourth child. But her father encouraged her to go to school and treated her equally to her four brothers. Since Barbara’s father was a politician, their home was a common meeting ground for other politicians and radicals like her father. Barbara grew up surrounded by people of many viewpoints and political opinions. Being exposed to such a diverse group of individuals may have fueled her own career in campaigning for rights. Though she was denied university, she practiced artistries and allied herself with many politicians.
Before her career as a campaigner, Barbara attended Bedford Square Ladies College and had a following as a painter. Her friend William Ransom gave her the opportunity to write for his newspaper the Hastings & St Leonards News. When Barbara was 21, she opened a progressive primary school with the partnership of Emily Davies. Making it for all children it was co-ed, and for children of all class levels. Later, in the 1850s, she campaigned for women’s legal disability rights giving evidence to the House of Commons. Barbara wrote A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women. This campaign resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act, allowing easier divorce through law courts.
While other women commonly fought for the voting rights of women, Barbara focused on women’s rights in marriage, as when women got married, all their money, earnings, and belongings went to the man. In 1857, she formed a small committee to reform government laws letting women earn wages. The committee continued nationwide, and so she wrote the petition Married Women's Property Bill which passed the House of Commons in 1857. During this time she met and married Eugene Bodichon, who supported her views and helped her campaigns. Later in 1857 Barbara published her controversial pamphlet Women and Work, arguing that women should work and contribute to families and not remain stagnant housewives. Continuing her campaigning work in 1858, Barbara co-founded The Englishwoman's Review with Bessie Rayner Parkes where she could disperse her ideas more. Their journal was available to everyone and discussed the need for further women’s education, encouraging women to go further than a primary level and pursue college and university.
Following the two years of her journal, she decided to start her biggest project yet- the Women’s Suffrage Committee. The franchise organized a petition that John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons. This would be supported by an amendment in the Reform Act. Presented in 1866, the goal of this petition was to allow women to vote. Sadly it was denied with 196 votes to 73. Her final contributions to this debate were in 1869 when she published Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women. After, she began touring the United Kingdom lecturing on women’s rights. She additionally published pamphlets for women’s rights, but ultimately returned to women’s education. Collaborating with Emily Davies, she opened the first women’s college in Cambridge- Girtons College. Her last work in education was in 1882 where Barbara was a philanthropist and funded Scalands Night School for the Poor.
Barbara never had children, though she desired to and was married. Her husband Eugene Bodichon died in 1885 after twenty-eight years of marriage, and in 1877 Barbara had a serious stroke. Sadly this left her an invalid and unable to continue her beloved work. Barbara died in 1891 and left all her remaining money to Girtons College. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon died at the age of 64 as a successful author, campaigner, and women’s rights activist. She is still remembered today for revolutionary and selfless work.