Written by artist and feminist activist Barbara Leigh Smith, Women and Work is a radical pamphlet that was published in 1857 during a decade of mounting feminist activity in England. Women and Work argues for women’s equal rights to education, employment opportunities and financial independence, within a range of professions. It strives to elevate the social status of working women by persuading its readers that employment is respectable for women. In contrast, it argues that married women’s financial dependence on their husbands is morally degrading.
Leigh Smith was the leader of the ‘Langham Place group’, a mid-Victorian circle of middle-class women who campaigned to improve women’s condition. Major concerns were women’s education and employment, across all classes. The group published pamphlets and the English Woman's Journal, gathered petitions, established societies, and ran initiatives such as teaching women arithmetic. In 1866 several members, including Leigh Smith, led the first campaign for women’s suffrage.
As a successful poet who engaged with women’s issues, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a substantial impact on female reformers such as Leigh Smith. Indeed, Barrett Browning was friends with several women from the Langham Place circle. Examples from her poetry and her career were drawn on to bolster their debates about women’s role in society. Leigh Smith quotes passages from Aurora Leigh (1856) in Women and Work, opening with the powerful epigraph:
To a loyal woman, ‘love and work with me’,
Will get fair answer, if the work and Love,
Being good themselves, are good for her, the best
She was born for.