When she was 25, in the year, 1854, Anna Haslam came to live for a few years in the Parish of Inishlounaght (Marlfield), in Clonmel. Her husband, Thomas, was an accountant in a local industry.
Her biographer, Dr. Carmel Quinlan, of UCC and Clonmel, has described her as “genteel,” and yet she became one of the most important revolutionaries in the long campaign for women’s rights.
I write this column in anticipation of the widely celebrated International Women’s Day. Yet, I am sure that if I were to tell any of those bright young Leaving Certificate students that I daily meet, going to and from school, that their fore-mothers did not have the right to vote, that they only had circumscribed rights to property and to their own children, and that they had no access to university education, they would listen to me with polite incredulity, as if I had “a hole in the head.”
And Anna Haslam? Who was she? In the aftermath of the militancy which finally led to the establishment of our Irish State, the quiet revolutionaries were forgotten, side-lined, especially if they were women. Fortunately, they are now being recovered, and three Clonmel women, Professor Maria Luddy, Dr. Carmel Quinlan and the late Neili O Cleirigh (Nellie Beary) have sigificantly contributed to that recovery.
Anna Fisher was born into a prosperous merchant Quaker family in Youghal in 1829. She grew up imbued with the spirit of that faith; of the equality of men and women; of natural human rights, of the right of access to education, and the obligation of service to humankind.
Her family had been actively involved in famine relief, so she had an early introduction to that obligation. She went to school in Newtown, Waterford, and then to Castlegate (The Mount) in York. It was there she met Thomas Haslam, a member of a Mountmellick Quaker family. They returned to Ireland, eventually married, and it would seem that the first few years of a long and happy marriage were spent in Marlfield.
Thomas Haslam, according to the Quinlan biography, may have “lost the faith,” but he retained the Quaker commitment to universal justice, pacifism and human rights. He was a gifted writer of pamphlets, articles and letters-to-the-paper, and articulated all the campaigns to which his wife devoted her life.
The 19th century has become significant as a time when many like-minded people identified the need for radical changes in society, including Catholics (particularly the women’s religious Orders), Protestants and Nonconformists, several of them women, who worked separately, and sometimes in co-operation, to achieve the societal changes which we now accept as indispensable “norms” in our lives.
Anna Haslam had, from an early age, been a member of the Anti-Slavery movement and of the Olive Leaf Circle, for the promotion of international peace, but she gradually became aware of the more immediate problems on her doorstep. These involved, for instance, family planning - a subject then not widely discussed and upon which Thomas was to write a rather innocent (to the modern ear) treatise.
Looking at the circumscribed lives of women, and particularly poor women, led her inevitably to the Suffrage movement and to the fact that women did not have either a vote nor a representation in elections, and so had neither influence nor power in the enactment of the laws which governed their lives.
She had been associated with the English movement from 1866 and in 1876 established, with Thomas, the Dublin Women’s Suffragette Association which later branced out into a national movement. But the intensive pursuit of votes for women was, according to Anna, set back ten years by the enactment of the very controversial Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864. This legislation allowed for the imprisonment of women, alleged prostitutes, without trial, and for indefinite periods of time, in the so-called Lock Hospitals.
The basic injustice of imprisonment without trial, and the double standards of morality implicit in the legislation, politicised a significant number of well-educated middle-class women, including a limited number of Catholic women (led by Mrs Morgan O’Connell). The campaign for the repeal of the legislation, much of it led by the Haslams, was intensive; meetings, lobbying, placarding, letters to newspapers. The campaigners were derided, abused, condemned and accused of supporting “the dregs of society,” but victory was achieved in the repeal of the Acts of 1882.
The pursuit of votes for women was now taken up with added energy, and here it must be said that the campaigning women had much support from many, many, politically influential men who identified the injustice of depriving one half of humanity of a democratic right. It should also be said here that the Haslam campaign was entirely peaceful - Mrs Pankhurst and her militants were still some decades into the future.
A partial victory was achieved in 1898 when women, over 30, were allowed to vote in local elections. They were also given the right to be represented on the Board of Guardians. When she was 90 in 1918, and, according to Carmel Quinlan “surrounded by flowers and flags...she was driven by motor car to vote...and was filmed by a news camera crew.”
The battle for the vote was finally won but her beloved Thomas had now died. Universal suffrage for all citizens, men and women, over 21 became a vital component of the first Constitution of the new Irish State.
Anna Haslam died on 28th November 1922, by which time the country which she loved was in turmoil, on the brink of Civil War. “It is miserable,” she wrote, “strikes innumerable. What will become of us? Ireland is a puzzle.”
She said of herself that her life had been spent in assisting all movements which helped to forward the interests of women. Anna Haslam really did make a difference!