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The Dublin Women's Franchise League

Essay by Mary Cullen on Anna Haslam - page 2

Anna Haslam was active in all these campaigns, and saw them all as vital for women's advancement and mission. However, she is best remembered today for her work for votes for women. The parliamentary franchise was important both as a recognition of women's citizenship and as empowering them to reform society through influencing legislation.

In 1866, in anticipation of the 1867 extension of the male franchise, a petition to parliament to include women on the same terms as men in the legislation was hastily drawn up and within a fortnight gathered 1,499 women's signatures. Among the fifteen with Irish addresses was that of Anna Haslam. When the petition was not successful, organised action began. In England, the National Society for Women's Suffrage was founded in 1867 and in Ireland the Northern Ireland Society for Women's Suffrage in 1871.

In Dublin, meetings to promote suffrage were held from about 1868, with Anne Robertson of Blackrock, county Dublin, the first leading figure. Anna Haslam attended at least some of these meetings and was one of the organisers of a meeting in Dublin in the early 1870s at which Isabella Tod, the prominent feminist leader in Belfast, spoke. In 1874, Thomas Haslam published three issues of a periodical The Women's Advocate which asserted women's right to the vote, and in 1876 Anna and Thomas Haslam founded the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association (DWSA), the longest-lived Irish suffrage society.

Anna Haslam was secretary of the DWSA from its inception until 1913 when she stood down and was elected life-president. She did not miss a single meeting and was clearly a driving force in the organisation. The original membership was predominantly Quaker and included both women and men, though as time passed, women increasingly outnumbered men. It worked to educate public opinion by letters to the newspapers and organising drawing room and public meetings, the latter whenever the opportunity of high-profile women speakers presented itself. Drawing room meetings aimed to influence as many 'important' people as possible.

The association maintained contact with the suffrage movement both in England and internationally and sent delegates, regularly both Haslams, to suffrage and other feminist conferences, and later to suffrage demonstrations and parades. It followed political developments in Ireland and Britain to exploit favourable opportunities to lobby in support of suffrage. It organised petitions to parliament and sent deputations and letters to Irish MPs urging them to introduce or support bills or amendments to bills to enfranchise women. It exhorted 'influential' women in different parts of Ireland to lobby their MPs. Its minutes noted with approval advances in the various feminist causes.

In 1884, women were again excluded from an act extending male suffrage, and emancipationists' efforts now switched to private members' bills. Even though these regularly drew substantial support from MPs, including the Irish Home Rule members, they never resulted in legislation. The Conservative Party, generally opposed to women's suffrage, was almost continuously in government from 1885 to 1906, allowing the leadership to use parliamentary procedures to dispose of unwelcome bills.

The DWSA, like most middle-class suffrage organisations in the United Kingdom, demanded the vote for women on the same terms as men. In the mid-19th century, this meant on a property qualification which also excluded most men. As the property qualification was reduced by successive acts of parliament, thus extending the franchise to more categories of men, the demand for women's suffrage correspondingly extended to more women, and, as married women gained property rights, the suffragists demanded the removal of either sex or marriage bars. Socialist feminists challenged suffragists as bourgeois women looking for votes for their own class.

The number of Irish suffrage campaigners remained small throughout the 19th century, with the DWSA recording only 43 members in 1896. While no progress had yet been achieved on the parliamentary franchise, the suffragists had more success in the area of local government. The time was favourable as local government reform was on the political agenda throughout the UK. The Irish poor law system had been set up in 1838 and the boards of guardians had become an important part of the local government structure. Some of the guardians were elected by the ratepayers and it was the one area where women could vote on the same property qualification as men, while in England, women were also eligible for election as guardians.

The office of poor law guardian had obvious potential for women philanthropists as a way to share in policymaking. Anna Haslam explained Irish suffragists' slowness in acting on the issue to the fact that in Ireland, election to the boards of guardians had from the start become an arena of political contest between male nationalists and unionists.

The DWSA now organised the introduction of a private member's bill to remove disqualification 'by sex or marriage' for election or serving as a poor law guardian. The bill passed in 1896 and the association immediately wrote to the newspapers and published leaflets explaining how to register to vote and stand for election and actively encouraged qualified women to go forward as candidates. By 1900, there were nearly 100 women guardians.

Continued on page 3

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