Barbara Bodichon, the daughter of Benjamin Leigh Smith and Anne Longden, was born near Robertsbridge, Sussex, in 1827. Her father came from a well-known unitarian radical family. Barbara's grandfather had worked closely in Parliament with William Wilberforce in his campaign against the slave-trade and had supported the French Revolution, whereas her great-grandfather had favoured the American colonists against the British government. The family was also related to Fanny Smith, the mother of Florence Nightingale.
When Barbara was born her father was a member of the House of Commons and her mother, Anne Longden, was a seventeen-year old milliner who had been seduced by Smith. The birth created a scandal because the couple did not marry. Anne remained his common-law wife until she died of tuberculosis when Barbara was only seven years old. As her biographer, Pam Hirsch, has pointed out: "After the death of Anne Longden from tuberculosis in 1834, despite advice from some sections of his family to have the children discreetly brought up abroad, their father brought them up himself, first at Pelham Crescent, Hastings, and later at his London home, 5 Blandford Square, Marylebone."
The home of Benjamin Leigh Smith was also a meeting place for fellow radicals and political refugees. This gave Barbara the opportunity to meet and make friends with a wide-range of different people involved in politics. Leigh Smith was an advocate of women's rights and treated Barbara the same way as her brothers. Barbara and her four brothers and sisters attended the local school where they were educated with working class children.
At the age of twenty-one, Benjamin Leigh Smith gave all his children £300 a year. It was extremely unusual for fathers to treat their daughters this way and it gave Barbara the chance to be independent of her family. Barbara used some of this money to establish her own progressive school in London. Barbara selected Elizabeth Whitehead to be the school's headteacher. Before opening what later became known as the Portman Hall School, Barbara and Elizabeth made a special study of primary schools in London. It was decided to establish an experimental school that was undenominational, co-educational, and for children of different class backgrounds.
In the 1850s Barbara concentrated on the campaign to remove women's legal disabilities. This included writing articles and organizing petitions. The writer, Caroline Norton, also played an important role in this campaign. Barbara gave evidence to a House of Commons committee looking into the legal position of married women. The committee deliberations resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act that allowed divorce through the law courts instead of the slow and expensive business of a Private Act of Parliament. Barbara was particularly pleased that this new act also protected the property rights of divorced women.
Barbara was very critical of a legal system that failed to protect the property and earnings of married women. In 1857 Barbara wrote Women and Work where she argued that a married women's dependence on her husband was degrading. As a young woman Barbara had fallen in love with John Chapman, the editor of the Westminster Review. Her views on the legal position of married women meant that she was unwilling to marry Chapman. However, after meeting Eugene Bodichon, Barbara decided to compromise her principals by marrying this former French army officer. Bodichon held radical political views and loyally supported Barbara in her many campaigns for women's rights.
In 1858 Barbara Bodichon and her friend, Bessie Rayner Parkes, founded the journal, The Englishwoman's Review. For the next few years the two women made their journal available to women campaigning for women doctors and the extension of opportunities for women in higher education.
Bodichon now decided the time was right to campaign for the franchise. 1866 Bodichon formed the first ever Women's Suffrage Committee. This group organised the women's suffrage petition, which John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons on their behalf.
Bodichon now toured the country where she held meetings on the subject of women's suffrage. Her speeches converted many women to the cause, including Lydia Becker, the future leader of the movement. Bodichon also wrote and published a series of pamphlets on the subject of women's rights. Although her main efforts went into the women's suffrage campaign, Bodichon continued her work to improve women's education.
Bodichon joined with Emily Davies to raise funds for the first women's college in Cambridge. Girton College was opened in 1873 but women students at Girton were not admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.
In 1877 Bodichon was taken seriously ill and although she recovered she was left paralyzed. Although Bodichon retained her interest in women's rights, she was no longer able to take an active role in the movement. Bodichon remained an invalid until her death in Hastings on 11th June 1891. In her will Barbara Bodichon left a large sum of money to Girton College.