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The Dublin Women's Franchise League

Essay by Mary Cullen on Anna Haslam - page 1

Anna Haslam (1829–1922)

Anna Haslam was a major figure in the 19th and early 20th-century women's movement in Ireland. She was born Anna Maria Fisher into a Quaker family in Youghal, county Cork. Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) were leaders in philanthropy and social reform, and, of all the Christian denominations, the most favourable to equality between the sexes. Anna was educated at the Quaker boarding school for girls and boys at Newtown in county Waterford and later at a Quaker school in Yorkshire.

In 1854 she married Thomas Haslam, also from a Quaker family from Mountmellick, and in 1858 they came to live in Dublin. Thomas was a committed supporter of women's rights and a co-worker with his wife throughout a long and happy marriage. His health broke down in 1866 and for forty years Anna was the breadwinner, running a fancy goods shop in Rathmines.

The 19th-century women's movement emerged in the context of the economic, political and intellectual developments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These included: the industrial revolution and the expansion of commerce, trade, finance and the professions; the growth of the middle class in numbers and wealth and the movement of middle-class men into political office and power, while middle-class women were increasingly confined to the 'private sphere'.

Enlightenment thinking which stressed the equality of all rational human beings brought more democratic ideas to bear on the tradition of republican citizenship based on the co-operation of free autonomous citizens to create the common good while evangelical religion emphasised the role of women as guardians of morality in the family and society.

These all interacted in the upsurge of female philanthropy which brought large numbers of middle and upper-class women outside the home to organise action for the physical and moral benefit of the less advantaged in society. It is no coincidence that the pioneering Irish women's rights campaigners came from backgrounds in philanthropy. Their driving force was the assertion that women were autonomous human persons with both the right and responsibility to direct their own lives, develop their individual potential and share in shaping the direction of society.

The Irish pioneers appear to have been virtually all middle class, Protestant in religion and unionist in politics. Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the early women's rights activists had a close relationship with their English counterparts. They shared the same general disabilities under the common law and largely similar discrimination in education, employment, sexual double standards and political participation.

Most reforms for any part of the UK required legislation by the all-male parliament at Westminster. To many nationalists, the feminist campaigns appeared to have an English importation and so nationalist and Catholic women were more likely to be active in Catholic Emancipation, Repeal of the Union, Young Ireland, the Fenians, the Land League and Land War and the Ladies Land League.

Starting in the mid-19th century, four main feminist campaigns developed in Ireland, running more or less concurrently and all related to the overall objective. In those for married women's control of their property and for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, action in Ireland was essentially part of an English-based campaign. In those for educational reform and the parliamentary franchise, the campaigns operated in different political contexts and were more separate.

The married women's property campaign targeted the legal right of husbands under the common law to control, use and dispose of their wives' inherited or earned wealth, the only exception being the alienation of property in land. The law drastically curtailed the power of married women of all classes to make decisions about their own lives and encouraged the education of middle-class girls towards the acquisition of accomplishments likely to lead to advantageous marriage rather than intellectual development and economic independence.

In the case of the Contagious Diseases Acts, passed in the 1860s to regulate prostitution in areas where the army or navy was stationed, feminists opposed them on two grounds.
Firstly, state regulation gave recognition, and thus implied approval, to prostitution which they saw as a threat to family life, and secondly, the acts imposed a double sexual standard which did not touch the men involved but treated the women as commodities to be, in the words of the English leader, Josephine Butler, periodically cleansed and recycled as 'clean harlots for the army and navy.'

Education was another crucial issue for developing women's self-esteem and potential and in equipping them for their role in reforming society. Here the campaign aimed to upgrade girls' secondary education so that it stressed intellectual development rather than accomplishment, and to gain entry to the universities, degrees, the higher professions and better paid employments generally.

Continued on page 2

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