Passions ran high on `Woman's Journal'

Historical Notes
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The Independent Online
BARBARA LEIGH Smith Bodichon was the unconventional and influential leader of the Victorian Women's Movement. She led four great campaigns; to reform the Married Women's Property Act, for middle-class women's right to paid work, for higher education and for the vote on the same terms as men. Politically acute, she recognised the importance of influencing public opinion; the English Woman's Journal which she founded in 1858 was a pressure group periodical providing a forum for a national exchange of ideas and information. Although there were male shareholders, the Journal was edited and run by women.

Bessie Parkes was the first editor, and she had a more conservative view of the Journal's purpose than the major shareholder, Barbara Bodichon. Parkes saw the Journal as an expression of a moral crusade, to reclaim fallen prostitutes, or to promote improvement in workhouses. Bodichon wanted its offices in Langham Place to be the the London hub of practical feminist enterprises. An employment register won so overwhelming a response that it grew into the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women (still active today).

An outreach activity of this was an emigration service for middle-class women run by Maria Rye, an evangelical Christian with a traditional sense of women's special mission; Rye did not approve of female suffrage or of women's entering the "male" professions. Some of the Journal co-workers objected that emigration schemes for women amounted "to a sentence of transportation or starvation for old maids".

But serious quarrels broke out when Bessie Parkes asked Matilda Hays, whose "female marriage" with the American actress Charlotte Cushman had broken up, to become co-editor of the Journal. Within the Langham Place Group, "Max", as she was called, a tall handsome woman, and a cross-dresser, aroused ardent feelings in several of the women, and then broke hearts as she switched her affections from one partner to the next. She was finally expelled from the Journal, but not before causing an emotional maelstrom within its ranks.

Max only created private heartbreaks, not public scandals. In the case of Emily Faithfull, however, her indiscretions were reported everywhere from the gutter press to The Times. Faithfull was the daughter of a Surrey clergyman whose role at Langham Place was to set up, with its financial help, the Victoria Press, where she trained and employed female compositors for the first time in England. In the most sensational divorce trial of the 1860s Admiral Codrington filed for divorce claiming that his wife had committed adultery using Faithfull's home as a love nest. Mrs Codringon made a countersuit, alleging that the Admiral had attempted to rape Faithfull on an occasion when she was sharing Mrs Codrington's bed, and that he would have succeeded, but for Mrs Codrington's defence. The conservative press had a feeding frenzy. Here were the most delicious ingredients it could wish for: feminists, adultery, lesbianism, even three-in-a-bed. Barbara Bodichon, irritated that the Journal seemed to be self-destructing amid a welter of internal quarrels and external scandal refused to give it more financial support and the Journal ceased in 1864.

But is it surprising that these 1860s women both loved and quarrelled among themselves? They were passionate about their aims, and they had to cope with male hostility, sometimes within their own families, certainly from male journalists and even from male compositors, jealous of women entering their trade. Inevitably they clung to each other, and sometimes their love for each other, and their quarrels, moved from the sisterly to the passionate. They were all brave women, giving their hearts and souls to the cause and, in doing so, frequently paying a high price.

Pam Hirsch is the author of `Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: feminist, artist and rebel' (Pimlico, pounds 14)