By Aileen Atcheson
When Anna Haslam was about 25 she came to live in the parish of Inislaunact in Clonmel. She was reputed to have been a gentle, refined person. Yet, she became an important figure and indeed a revolutionary in the campaign for women’s rights.
Women in her time, and indeed for many years afterwards, were downtrodden and in may ways surplus to society except to produce children and make money for men to spend. In Anna’s youth women did not have the right to vote, their rights to property and to their own children were circumscribed. They could not attend university. The Irish Free State was established following much militancy and deaths, and the quiet revolutionaries were forgotten.
Anna came from Youghal, Fisher was her maiden name. She was born in 1829. A Quaker, she had the spirit of the Quakers always. She believed in service to others, equality of men and women, education for all. Her family had been involved in famine relief. She attended school in Newtown, Waterford and then The Mount, in York.
There she met Thomas Haslam, another member of a Quaker family. They married and returned to Ireland, spending the first few years of their married life in Marlfield. Thomas was a gifted writer. He wrote to the papers regularly and articulated the campaigns to which his wife devoted so much of her life and energy. Anna had been a member of the Anti-Slavery movement and of the Olive Leaf Circle for many years. The later promoted international peace. As time went by she became aware of the many local problems. These involved Family Planning. Thomas wrote a treatise on this.
She saw the circumscribed lives of women, particularly poor women. This led her to join the Suffrage Movement. She helped with the campaign for Votes for Women. This campaign was set back by the enactment of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864. This Act allowed the imprisonment of women who were supposed to be prostitutes, without trial and for long periods of time, indefinite time, in Lock Hospitals.
The injustice of it all helped a number of educated women to become politicised. Some of these women were Catholics. Ms Morgan O’Connell was one of the leaders of this group. The Campaign for Repeal of the Legislation was led by the Haslams. There were letters to newspapers, pamphlets, and meetings. The campaigners were derided and made little of and accused of supporting the dregs of society.
The Act was repealed in 1882. A victory for the minority.
The battle for votes for women was then taken up more publicly. The women had support from some men. The campaign was peaceful. A partial victory was achieved in 1898. Votes were allowed to women over 30 in local elections. They were given the right to be represented on the Boards of Guardians.
Ms Haslam was driven by motor to vote. She was 90 then and her beloved husband was dead. Suffrage for all women became a component of the first Constitution of the Irish Free State.