Today, as every History Girl knows, marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted the franchise to women over thirty. When I realised that my regular History Girls post would fall on this day, I felt a tremendous weight of responsibility. What to say? Who to celebrate? So many of my posts, especially since Star By Star was published, have been on this very subject. I didn’t want to repeat myself.
There are so many suffrage heroines I could honour – the Pankhursts, of course, especially Sylvia for whom I’ve always had particular respect; Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Winfred Carney, both of whom I’ve discussed in detail in recent posts; Millicent Fawcett; Annie Kenney… and so many, as in every struggle, completely unknown and unsung.
Last week, walking up Botanic Avenue to my office at Queen’s University, Belfast, pondering this issue, I happened to look up and catch sight of a blue plaque. And there was my answer. I had heard, of course, of Isabella Tod, the 19th century campaigner, but didn’t know as much as I should have done about her remarkable commitment to women’s rights. Which made me think many History Girls readers might also like to know more.
Scottish-born Isabella Tod (1836-1896) spent most of her life in Belfast where she campaigned for women’s rights; not only the vote but education, property and civil liberties. She wrote for several papers, helped fight the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s and helped establish several important girls’ schools, including my own old school, Victoria College, originally the Ladies’ Collegiate School (1859). She was a passionate believer in educating girls, organising a delegation to travel to London to persuade the government to include females in the 1878 Intermediate Education Act.
A Presbyterian and a Liberal, she was opposed to Irish Home Rule, which puts her on the ‘other side’ of Irish history to revolutionaries like Winifred Carney and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who combined feminism with republicanism. And perhaps, with her commitment to temperance and unionism, she seems less radical than these later women, but her contribution to suffrage was unequalled in 19th century Ireland. The North of Ireland Women's Suffrage Committee, set up by Tod in 1871, was the first suffrage society in the country, and Tod addressed meetings all over Ireland, establishing the North of Ireland Women's Suffrage Society in 1873.
We sometimes forget today that women were granted the municipal franchise – the right to vote in local elections, in 1869 in England. Ireland was slower to grant this, but it is thanks to Tod that rate-paying Belfast women were granted that right in 1887, while women in other Irish towns had to wait until 1898, which was two years after Tod’s death at the age of only sixty.
Tod travelled widely in Ireland and Britain, sharing platforms with allies from all over the country. She was highly regarded in her lifetime, on both sides of the Irish Sea, and is celebrated today as probably the most significant Irish feminist of the 19th century. What struck me most about Tod’s life was the sheer amount of campaigning she managed to cram into her sixty years. Like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, she had many concerns and passions, but her feminism was at the heart of it all.
She did not live to see the Representation of the People Act in 1918. Like so many Victorian women, she paved the way for the next generation, just like the suffragettes and the women who fought for other rights subsequently did for us. I hope we can be worthy of them.