Cobbe, Frances Power (1822–1904), feminist, journalist, anti-vivisectionist, and philanthropist, was born 4 December 1822 in Dublin, the fifth child and only daughter of Charles Cobbe (1781–1857), a landlord and magistrate of Newbridge House, Co. Dublin, and Frances Cobbe (née Conway; 1777–1847), of Morden Park, Surrey. Cobbe was educated at home and, in 1836–8, at a girl's school in Brighton, which she greatly disliked, finding it trivial and intellectually insipid. When her mother became bedridden, Cobbe returned home to assist with the family housekeeping. She continued her education independently, frequently visiting Marsh's Library in Dublin, and studying history, astronomy, literature, and religion, and, with the assistance of a local clergyman, Greek and geometry. She experienced religious doubts, becoming an agnostic in her teens and rejecting the tenets of Christianity altogether by her early twenties. She developed a form of Theism derived from the American transcendentalist and Unitarian Theodore Parker, with whom she entered into a prolonged correspondence and formed a lasting friendship. After the death of her beloved mother in 1847, Cobbe confronted her father with her beliefs, and refused to follow the traditional religious observances of her family. An incensed Charles Cobbe exiled his recalcitrant daughter to her brother's home in Donegal and, though she was recalled after some months, their relationship was permanently strained. In 1855 her first book, Essay on the theory of intuitive morals, appeared anonymously and was well received, though Cobbe noted ironically that there was a change of tone among reviewers when her identity became known.
In 1857 Charles Cobbe died, leaving his daughter an uncomfortably small patrimony. She left Ireland and spent the next year in Europe and the Middle East, discovering an unexpected passion for travel. She returned in 1858 and moved to Bristol, where she lived with the reformer and philanthropist Mary Carpenter at Park Row. The arrangement proved unsatisfactory for both women: Cobbe found Carpenter's frugal lifestyle unbearable and her work in the ragged schools uncongenial, while Carpenter was unable to reciprocate Cobbe's desire for a more intimate friendship. Cobbe moved to nearby Durdham Down, where she devoted her energies to philanthropic work. She visited workhouses, becoming particularly involved in the treatment of workhouse girls who entered domestic service; she published Friendless girls and how to help them in 1861. The experience focused her interest in women's rights, and in 1862 she read a paper to the Social Science Congress advocating women's admission to universities (published in the same year as Female education and how it would be affected by university examinations). In two further articles published that year, ‘Celibacy vs marriage’ and ‘What shall we do with our old maids?’ (both in Fraser's Magazine), she defended the integrity of single women. Cobbe continued to write on religious subjects also: she edited the collected works of the deist Theodore Parker (14 vols, 1863–71), and published Broken lights: an inquiry into the present condition and future prospects of religious faith (1864).
Around this time Cobbe moved to London, where she found a new emotional stability, settling in Kensington with a Welsh woman, Mary Lloyd, who became her lifelong companion. Cobbe rapidly established herself as a prolific journalist and leading figure in the women's movement; her pamphlet Wife-torture (1878) argued that physical abuse should be grounds for legal separation and significantly influenced the Matrimonial Causes Act, passed later that year. She was a regular contributor to many Victorian periodicals, including the Quarterly Review, Fraser's Magazine, The Standard, and the Cornhill Magazine, and was leader writer for The Echo (1868–75) as well as Italian correspondent for the Daily News. Though in many respects a radical thinker, Cobbe developed a singular brand of feminism that could also be strikingly conservative. The duties of women (1881) articulated her core belief that once women became wives and mothers their domestic duties became paramount (which was perhaps why, in her view, celibacy was preferable to marriage).
The other predominant passion of Cobbe's public career was the campaign against vivisection, which increasingly consumed her throughout the 1870s. The movement was closely linked to feminism (both being concerned with male brutality to weaker beings), and reinforced her distrust of male medical practitioners, who, she believed, extended women's subjection by defining them as invalids. In 1875 she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (later known as the Victoria Street Society), the largest and most politically effective of the anti-vivisection organisations. Secretary of the society from 1876 to 1884, she also served as president and member of the executive committee; she excelled at attracting influential members to the movement, among them Lord Shaftesbury and the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, and the archbishop of York, William Thomson. She also edited an associated newspaper, The Zoophilist, for many years. Though by all accounts a genial and sociable character – Louisa May Alcott described her as ‘cheery, sensible, kindly, and keen’ (Williamson, 2) – she could also be headstrong and insensitive, and proved increasingly domineering in her uncompromising stance on vivisection.
Throughout these years Cobbe made regular trips to Europe, particularly Italy, where she met Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She and Lloyd often entertained at their Kensington home, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends that included John Stuart Mill, the suffragist Lydia Becker, and Fanny Kemble. In 1884 Cobbe and Lloyd retired to north Wales, settling at Hengwrt, near Dolgellau. Cobbe continued to work for the women's movement and to campaign against vivisection, writing essays and pamphlets, and in 1898 forming the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. She also found time to write her autobiography, Life of Frances Power Cobbe: by herself (1894), which included a detailed account of Irish village life in the 1830s and 1840s and strongly supported the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. She was intensely critical of many liberal reforms in Ireland, notably home rule, but also the policy of granting tenants fixity of tenure and compensation for improvements. Cobbe was devastated by Lloyd's death in 1896; she continued to live alone at Hengwrt until she died 5 April 1904. She was buried in Llanelltyd churchyard.