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Jane Cobden, 1851 to 1947

Jane Cobden

Bedford College alumna, 1876

Jane Cobden was a British Liberal politician who was active in many radical causes. A daughter of the Victorian reformer and statesman Richard Cobden, she was an early proponent of women's rights, and in 1889 was one of two women elected to the inaugural London County Council. Her election was controversial; legal challenges to her eligibility hampered and eventually prevented her from serving as a councillor.

The battle for women's suffrage on equal terms with men, to which she made her first commitment in 1875, was her most enduring cause. Although she was sympathetic and supportive of those, including her sister Anne Cobden-Sanderson, who chose to campaign using militant, illegal methods, she kept her own activities within the law. She stayed in the Liberal Party, despite her profound disagreement with its stance on the suffrage issue.

Jane Cobden was the first woman to be elected to the London County Council as councillor for Bromley and Bow. One of the giants on whose shoulders the Suffragette Movement was to stand, she was a bohemian and a committed defender of the downtrodden and abused.

Jane was active on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, and became increasingly committed to the cause of women’s suffrage over the 1870s. In 1871, she attended the Women’s Suffrage Conference in London with her sister Anne. In about 1879 she joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and by the following year she was the organisation’s Treasurer.

In the late 1880s, no one was sure whether women could serve as councillors or not; the law was unclear. In November 1888, the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors (SPRWCC) was set up to test the law. This catchily-named organisation set up a £400 election fund and choose two women to stand as Liberal candidates for the newly established London County Council.

Jane stood in Bromley and Bow, and Margaret Sandhurst stood in Brixton. Jane campaigned on a variety of issues, including opposition the tax on coal, better housing for the poor, 'fair' wages, and opposition to sweat shops. Both women won, but their positions were not secure; there were many who opposed their election and tried to overturn the results.

Sandhurst’s election was challenged by the man she defeated, and her election was declared invalid.

Jane was supported by her runner-up, who was also a member of the Liberal Party. However, a judge eventually ruled that Jane’s election was unlawful, and therefore so were her votes in the council.

She quietly served the rest of her term, and did not stand for re-election. It wasn’t until the Qualification of Women Act in 1907 that women legally gained the right to sit on county councils; Cobden was truly a woman before her time.

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To mark the centenary of votes for women, Royal Holloway, University of London, and the UK Parliament have developed a range of resources and an online course exploring the history of women's rights and suffrage.

 
 
 

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