Jan Marsh on blonde ambition
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891: Feminist, Artist, Rebel

by Pam Hirsch

Chatto & Windus, pounds 20

In 1866, 1,499 signatures were collected in a month on the first parliamentary petition for women's right to vote. Its prime movers, Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, predicted a long struggle. "You will go to vote on crutches," joked Barbara, "and I shall come out of my grave and vote in my shroud." Thirty years after Barbara's death, Emily finally voted, aged 88, in 1919.

In the first days of the women's movement, with its meetings, arguments and feminist magazines lurching from crisis to crisis, there was everything to fight for: right to employment, higher education, control over their own money if married and custody of children if divorced, as well as the right to elect and be elected. Barbara contributed most in sisterly support to coevals such as Dr Elizabeth Blackwell and George Eliot, and to younger women such as Hertha Marks, a Girton student and part-inspiration for Mirah Cohen in Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Energetic and original, Bodichon empowered many others. In the letters I have seen, her scrawly writing is unpunctuated, giving what must be a flavour of her encouraging, impulsive style.

"Adult women must not be supported by men, if they are to stand as dignified rational beings before God," she wrote in l857. Her own independent income, gifted by her father, was of course neither undignified nor degrading to her. Nor was her status as one of an illegitimate clutch of children sired by the wealthy, progressive Liberal Benjamin Leigh Smith, whom their many cousins (such as Florence Nightingale) refused to acknowledge. This anomalous position propelled Barbara into radical circles. "I am one of the cracked people of the world," she declared, revelling in unconventionality.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was impressed. Miss Smith, he told his sisters, was "blessed with large rations of tin, fat, enthusiasm and golden hair". An aspiring artist, she was equally capable of climbing a mountain in breeches, or wading a stream in none. Pam Hirsch also reveals the existence of a second batch of bastards, tucked away in Fulham. When Barbara learnt of these siblings in 1852, she was not sufficiently unconventional to welcome them into the extended dynasty.

Her own amours were less successful than she and her friends aspired to, with their hopes of equality and romance. She fell for publisher John Chapman, who already had a wife and mistress and whose seduction technique deployed the "liberated" argument that sex was beneficial for women. To discuss such taboo topics as menstruation with a man was exciting; nevertheless, the scenario is scary. Rescued from near-calamity, Barbara went to Algiers, where she pounced upon another unsuitable mate, Eugene Bodichon, self- exiled from Second Empire France. Married within six months, they spent a fact-finding honeymoon in north America, observing flora, fauna and slavery.

Thereafter Barbara was in Britain only during summer months. In Algeria, she painted large, impressionist landscapes . In London, she met friends and helped Emily Davies found Girton College. As with the franchise, it proved a long fight for women at Cambridge. Though they sat the exams, formal degrees were withheld; a century ago, students and dons combined under the slogan "Beware the Thin End of the Wedge". It was a further 50 years before women became full members of the university.

Sadly, Bodichon's activism was curtailed by a stroke at 50, when she might have been leading new campaigns. Her many interests have posed challenges to her biographer, not all surmounted, so that the narrative often anticipates and repeats itself. But her story is engrossing and appears at an apt moment. On 4 July, more than 400 women who graduated before 1948 will retrospectively receive their degrees from Cambridge. If the cheering is not too loud, they may hear a shrouded echo from the grave where Bodichon is buried.