Francis Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was an Irish journalist and author who fought for women’s rights, the protection of animals, and spoke out about domestic violence.
She was born in Ireland and lived on an estate. As early as 11 years old, she began to question the status quo including her religious upbringing. When she was 25, her mother died and her crisis of faith led to a rejection of traditional Christianity and she refused to participate in family prayers. Her father threw her out. She lived with her brother for a few months until she was allowed back in her father’s house.
She formed new religious beliefs based on the philosophies of American theologian Theodore Parker. She came to believe that God was not a harsh masculine authoritarian but rather a rational deity that embodied both masculine and feminine aspects and valued women as well as men. She wrote about this new way of viewing God in her first book “Essays on the Theory of Intuitive Morals” (1885) which she published anonymously to not embarrass her father.
After her father died, the family estate went to her brother and she used her small inheritance to travel. Her brother offered her the ability to live at the family home but Cobbe wanted to be independent and chose to make her living as a writer. It was not as comfortable of a life as she had on the estate but she was a prolific writer who managed to earn what she needed to live life on her own terms.
She became very active in women’s rights and was a member of the Society for Women's Suffrage. She advocated for the admission of women into universities and fair marriage law. She also started an organization against vivisection (experimentation on live animals) called the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals and was instrumental to getting some of the first laws against animal experimentation passed in 1876.
Cobbe was an early advocate to change marriage laws in order to protect women from domestic abuse. In 1878 she wrote an influential pamphlet entitled "Wife Torture in England”. By directly using the word “torture”, she forced lawmakers to confront the reality of what was happening to women. She argued against creating harsher punishments for the offender because flogging a husband for abusing his wife would only lead to more anger towards the wife when he was released. Cobb wrote, “The notion that a man's wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property, is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery”. She reasoned that even without the vote, if women could have equal protection under the law and equal access to work, women could leave an abusive situation. In 1878, an Act of Parliament was passed whereby wives were allowed to separate from a husband convicted of aggravated assault. In her autobiography, Cobbe wrote, “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”.
Cobb left a legacy of pamphlets, essays, books, and an autobiography. She was a pioneer for animal rights, suffrage rights, and protection of women against domestic violence. Cobbe is listed on the heritage floor section of Judy Chicago’s artwork “The Dinner Party” on display at the Brooklyn Museum and is one of the 59 names engraved on the base of the Millicent Fawcett suffrage statue in London that was unveiled in 2018.