Standing up for women in politics
A limestone seat in the centre of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin bears an inscription honouring Anna and Thomas Haslam for their “long years of public service chiefly devoted to the enfranchisement of women.”
Anna Haslam, a pioneer in every 19th-century Irish feminist campaign, fought for votes for women from 1866 when she was part of the first salvo as a signatory of John Stuart Mill’s petition to Parliament. In 1918, a woman of almost ninety, she went to the polls surrounded by flowers and flags, flanked by unionist, Irish Party and Sinn Féin women, united in her honour to celebrate the victory of the vote. This display of unity by activist women from all shades of political opinion acknowledged Anna’s pivotal role in the fight for the vote.
Anna and Thomas Haslam were founding members of the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association (DWSA) in 1876. This marked the start of a sustained campaign in Dublin for votes for women. There had been sporadic suffrage activity prior to this, including the publication of a short-lived journal, The Woman’s Advocate, by Thomas Haslam in 1874. Membership of the DWSA was open to men and women and included many members of Parliament, unionist and nationalist. Many members were Quakers. Although its leadership was unionist, it was non-party and attracted members of all political affiliation. It is difficult now to appreciate the radical nature of the early suffrage movement. Its activities – collecting signatures for petitions to Parliament, writing letters, holding meetings– appear tame when compared with the more flamboyant behaviour of the suffragettes who came after them. The early suffragists challenged the prevailing precepts that citizenship was possible only for male heads of households and that the subjection of women by men was natural. They challenged the ideology that a woman’s place was in the home and that it was shocking for her to speak in public. When Millicent Fawcett, the English suffrage leader, addressed a suffrage meeting in 1869, her husband was criticised in parliament for allowing her to speak in such an “advanced” and “unsexing” a manner.
The minute book of the DWSA, held in the National Archives of Ireland, contains a record of 213 meetings, all of which Anna Haslam attended, between 1876 and 1913. Although it was a Dublin-centred association, great efforts were made to involve women all over Ireland. Emphasis was placed on the educational role of the DWSA. It held public and private meetings at which prominent English suffragists were invited to speak and worked to overcome the “prevailing ignorance” of Dubliners regarding votes for women; copies of the Women’s Suffrage Journal were deposited in reading-rooms and libraries all over the city.
Many members of Parliament who supported women’s suffrage brought bills to Parliament, none of which succeeded, despite considerable support. This was because suffrage bills never received government support and it was notoriously difficult for private members’ bills to succeed in parliament. There was huge disappointment when the 1884 Reform Act, which significantly extended the male franchise, did not include a clause giving the vote to women householders.
Anna Haslam, aided by the writings of her husband Thomas, continued the fight, and in 1896 women in Ireland won the right to be elected as Poor Law Guardians, members of the official bodies which administered the Poor Law. Anna then spearheaded a campaign to encourage qualified women to stand for election. In 1898 women won eligiblility to vote in local government elections, and to stand for election as rural and urban district councillors. This was a significant breakthrough which made the case for parliamentary suffrage compelling, when one considers the absurdity of being voted onto bodies which administered the law while being precluded from a having a voice in the parliament which framed that law. By the end of 1898 there were 85 women Poor Law Guardians, 31 of whom were were also rural district councillors. In acknowledgement the DWSA changed its name to Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA).
The 20th century saw the rise of the suffragette movement in England, followed in Ireland by the foundation of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Gretta Cousins, who had been recruited by Anna as members of the IWSLGA. Anna continued her constitutional efforts, although overshadowed by the militant, younger and more flamboyant campaign of the IWFL. In February 1918, over 50 years after the Mill petition was presented to Parliament, the Representation of People Act enfranchised women over 30 in Great Britain and Ireland. In December 1918, she recorded her vote in the midst of “an admiring feminine throng”. In 1914 Francis Sheehy Skeffington wrote that the achievements of Thomas and Anna Haslam were too often forgotten by those “who have entered into the harvest of their labours.” They deserve to be remembered.