Genteel Revolutionaries: Anna and Thomas Haslam and the Irish Women's Movement

By Carmel Quinlan

Cork University Press, 2002 | ISBN 1-85918-328-X

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

This is as much a book about the patient energies of the men and women who labored for the Irish Women's Movement as it is about the life's work of the two gentle Haslams, especially Anna Haslam, and just how they are to be placed historically within this movement before and after the turn of the 20th century.

The Haslams are an untypical, fascinating couple and Quinlan alone does a good deed by bringing needed biography into the story of their place in the early women's rights movement. When Thomas Haslam married Anna Fisher in a civil ceremony in 1854, he had already left behind structured Quaker fellowship, was disowned by his Monthly Meeting in London, and as a result put his new bride outside of the Religious Society of Friends; as a consequence of their civil marriage, she too was expelled from the Society. They never rejoined or attended meetings again, but nevertheless enjoyed close and continuous ties with Friends. Eleven years after their betrothal, Thomas suffered a breakdown in health and was apparently never able to work again. Anna maintained a "stationery and toy warehouse," and this sustained the Dublin couple. Anna worked and became active in improving the life and rights of women in Ireland and England, and Thomas labored too in this endeavor as a writer and speaker. Except for a week in the nuptial bed, for the remaining 60 years of their happy marriage they maintained a celibate relationship, having early determined that they were not financially secure enough to raise children.

Abstinence was a theme of Thomas' early pamphlets on marriage and reproduction, both of which also recommended versions of the "rhythm method" of birth control. Feminists believed that men ought to learn sexual restraint and considered artificial contraception an impediment to suppressing a husband's sexual advances. His suggestion attempted to strike a middle ground: his birth-control method required male restraint and was also an instrument for social improvement. He wrote earnest polemical but constructive pieces—pamphlets, books, broadsides, speeches—on Irish social issues, birth control, sexual temperance, parental duties, prostitution, women's suffrage, and proper linguistic etiquette. Throughout his literary career he was an aid to Anna's feminist activities, traveling with her for the cause of women's suffrage and writing tracts in support of the causes they embraced. But it is Anna Haslam who comes across as the prime mover behind their social campaigns.

Anna Haslam was an active and founding member of numerous suffrage and union organizations, and she was an active participant in social, suffrage, and union associations in the UK and internationally. She promoted women's education, helped establish centers of learning for women, and was successful at getting women's candidacy for local elections. Her efforts, with Thomas, for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts seemed to her to absorb attention away from the long campaign for suffrage, but it helped develop skills she and her co-workers would use often in later efforts to even the playing field for women and men. She was involved for most of her life in these issues, beginning at least as early as 1861 and lasting until her death in 1922, at the age of 93. Thomas was also active until his death five years earlier. Only Anna lived to see Irish women receive the vote, in 1918.

This is not just a book about the struggle for women's voting rights in Ireland. Quinlan is certainly limited by archival material, but she has good scholarly habits, a clear writing style, a sensitivity to the larger issues in which the Haslams found themselves, and a talent for chronicling their efforts to change the wider Irish society's treatment of women within a very long period—from the Victorian era well into the 20th century. We get a glimpse of the younger Haslams as they embark on careers as social activists; we see their interaction with leading figures such as John Stuart Mill and Marie Stopes; and we get to see the older Haslams as they face a changing Ireland, complicated political issues (such as the Home Rule struggle), and growing aggressive tactics of a new generation of women who are also eager for equality, but less inhibited about how to achieve it. We also learn how the strength of a Quaker upbringing carried this couple through interesting times.

Copyright © 2003 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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