Feminist pioneers in a very modern marriage

Pegeen O’Sullivan reviews Genteel Revolutionaries: Anna and Thomas Haslam and the Irish women’s movement by Carmel Quinlan, Cork University Press, £9.06 (11.50 euros)

THIS IS an excellent biography of Anna and Thomas Haslam (1829 - 1922 and 1825 - 1917, respectively), a devoted Quaker couple who gave their long lives to the service of feminist causes in Ireland.

Theirs was a very modern marriage. Anna decided that they would not have children because, due to his indifferent health and her good business head, she would be the chief bread winner.

Their three main fields of activity were the study of birth control, opposition to the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 and the struggle for women’s suffrage. He wrote the pamphlets and policy statements, her role was as a member of committees and an organiser.

Quakerism is in itself a training in practical democracy as the Society of Friends is run by a network of committees at which no vote is ever taken. The training served them well.

As far as the 19th century is concerned, the Haslams were working virtually alone in Ireland although they were always in touch with the leading people working in their field in England.

The ideas of the early pioneers on birth control are bizarre to modern readers. In The Marriage Problem (1864) Thomas Haslam first idea was the safe period -- but unfortunately like other early writers in the field what he claimed as the safe period was actually the most fertile period. His other solution was abstinence, which surely leaves fertility in control.

Once the Contagious Diseases Act of 1846 was passed the Haslams became the Irish allies of the English social reformer Josephine Butler. At the time the Haslams regretted that this work deflected attention from the suffrage struggle but in reality the reverse was the truth as it brought many women into political life.

They campaigned for votes in every form of local government as a ladder to parliament, but what really mattered was electing women MPs and cabinet ministers in order to influence legislation.

Thomas and Anna were both unionists but in the later stage of the suffrage campaign they co-operated with Francis and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-03-11 10:45:18.
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