Claire Rush explores the life of Isabella M S Tod, a nineteenth-century social justice campaigner and a woman of faith.
Do you ever pause and think about the women who walked and fought before us for equality? The women from a different time with its own challenges who refused to be silent, but spoke out against gender injustice? The women who now largely remain forgotten by a male-dominated history? As I stroll through the leafy grounds of my old university, Queen’s University Belfast, I often remember that it was because of the persistence and tenacity of past women like Isabella M S Tod, that I had the privilege and right to gain my degrees regardless of my gender.
Isabella, arguably one of Belfast’s first proto-feminists, was a catalyst for social, legal and educational reform in the late nineteenth-century Ireland. Isabella was secretary of the educational reform group, the Belfast Ladies’ Institute (founded in 1867) which advocated for women to be able to attend university. As a result of the collective pressure and advocacy of Isabella and the Belfast Ladies’ Institute, women were admitted into the lecture halls of a university in Ireland for the first time in 1882.
Being an historian, I naturally love exploring the past as I gleam encouragement from it and get challenged by it. So what can we learn from our late nineteenth-century British sisters like Isabella who walked before us and in her own words, fought to see women freed from the ‘bondage of ignorance’?
1. A woman’s right to equal education is worth fighting for.
Education has and always will be a feminist issue as it is the key to economic independence and unlocks access to social and cultural capital. This is the same today as it was yesterday.
Isabella firmly believed that it was unfair for girls to be denied a university education. Born in 1836, Isabella herself was denied a formal academic education in a school simply because of her gender; she was most likely educated by her mother at home. At that time, society strongly perpetuated the Victorian ideal of womanhood which restricted girls like Isabella to the private domestic sphere. In contrast to her brother who would enter the frantic public world of commerce and politics, a middle-class Victorian girl like Isabella was expected to remain in the home to provide decoration and a noiseless influence. However this was an ideal which was shattered by the changing socio-economic reality.
A new piece of property legislation in 1848 had reduced the wealth of many families and caused a decline in marriage rates – many women were remaining unmarried and had to earn an income now. This included Isabella herself and she acknowledged in an article in 1874: ‘...if it be the duty of men to earn women’s bread for them, they don’t fulfil it.’ The structure of girls’ education had not improved in Belfast by the 1860s when Isabella’s campaigns started to gain momentum. Most middle-class girls received tuition by governesses in ‘showy artificial accomplishments’ like drawing and music, which were to be displayed in the drawing room rather than in ‘solid learning’ like arithmetic and English grammar. Third-level education for women was unheard of! When the Belfast Ladies’ Institute was founded in 1867, the lecture hall doors of the Irish universities remained firmly closed to women for fifteen years.
Unfortunately the global battle for equal education for boys and girls across the world has not yet been won. International charity, Plan, assert that 1 in 5 adolescent girls across the world are denied a formal education because of conflict, discrimination and poverty. We still need to speak out for equal educational access for all girls and boys.
2. The importance of being bold
On many occasions for me, the subtle sexist, misogynist and objectifying nature of contemporary UK culture can seem suffocating. For Isabella, the oppression of her sex was ingrained in late nineteenth-century legislation which was reinforced by a patriarchal culture. During the late nineteenth century, public discourse objected to academic education for girls on the grounds of religious, moral and physiological reasons - academic education was believed to be injurious to the health of the ‘fairer sex’ even causing their teeth to fall out!
Isabella was even attacked for her convictions by some circles of her own Presbyterian church community who believed that women’s religious and moral duties, their most important God-sanctioned obligations, would be threatened if they chased intellectual pursuits. For example, an editorial in the Presbyterian Witness newspaper in 1885 stated:
By all means let the intellectual culture go forward... but let not the higher, the spiritual culture be forgotten or dwarfed... But save us and save society still more from the growth of young girls who had lost the true glory and beauty of womanhood, and had become mere mathematicians, scanners of Greek and patterers of German.’
Isabella, although she was a devout Presbyterian herself, stood up against the patriarchal assumption of her church without losing her own faith. In fact Isabella challenged it head on when she criticised the prevailing religious attitude in a public speech in Dublin:
‘We are told that women don’t need a high education; their hearts are of more consequence than their minds. We are told that even if they should have a high education, it ought to be different from that of men, because their work in life will be different... And we are told that it is very presumptuous for them to wish for any good thing they have not got already.’
Isabella was one of a number of women who subverted traditional gender norms in late Victorian Britain by boldly arguing that women’s minds were just as important as their hearts. Although not a founding member of the Belfast Ladies’ Institute, she joined in 1869 as secretary helping to engineer it from an educational body into an agent of change in the evolution of girls’ education in late nineteenth-century Ireland. She was a motivating force in the publication of pamphlets, articulation of speeches, the creation of memorials, the organisation of conferences and the fostering of links with English female activists on the issue of female education. In the late nineteenth-century, it was a huge step for women like Isabella to publish and speak on platforms as they were planting their feet firmly in the ‘male’ public sphere. Isabella was being bold. Her example demonstrates that a social borderland existed where the frontiers of the separate spheres of gendered social organisation were not fixed and could be manipulated by women aiming for social change.
3. We are better together.
Isabella was not a ‘lone ranger’. She understood the necessity of collective pressure and working together with others from similar organisations. She travelled annually to London during the parliamentary session to develop alliances with other British associations, to engage the support of prominent people and to ‘watch the interests of Irish women.’ The immense influence which Isabella possessed was described by a pupil from a progressive girls’ school in Belfast in 1889 when she wrote in the school magazine: ‘just all of you become Miss Tod’s private secretary and go over to London with her, where her name seems to open all doors.’ Isabella ensured that the Belfast Ladies’ Institute was connected with the network of educational reformers across the British Isles and co-ordinated sending memorials with other groups; thus applying collective pressure.
Isabella’s success at networking and harnessing support from diverse groups of people is clearly seen in 1878. The government had introduced a new piece of legislation to create the first national secondary school examinations run by a state-run board. However in order to placate the powerful traditional lobby of the Catholic Church, girls were to be excluded. Isabella motivated the Belfast Ladies’ Institute into action and organised a memorial and deputation to the Lord Chancellor convinced that secondary education was a right, not a privilege, for girls. If girls had been excluded from state secondary education provision, it would have proved disastrous for the campaign for higher education access. Isabella’s skill as a networker is evident as a Belfast newspaper reported that the successful deputation was of an ‘usually representative character’ as it included men, women, Protestants and Roman Catholics from the north and south of Ireland; this was no mean feat as Ireland was a hot bed of politics at the time.
Today, does the feminist community in the UK work together for the greater good?
4. Never giving up.
Reformers like Isabella who campaigned for women’s access to universities were committed for the long-haul. This was an arduous struggle full of disappointments and the reformers helped to achieve step-by-step incremental change. It was an evolution rather than a revolution. Yet their persistency never died.
What were the steps on the road to success? In 1869, Isabella encouraged the Belfast Ladies’ Institute to successfully petition Queen’s University of Ireland (QUI) to create examinations for women. These certificates were the first solid qualification for women in Ireland and ten years later, 500 young women had been awarded a certificate. The certificates also encouraged girls’ schools to offer academic subjects and indirectly improved teaching standards as schools specified it as a requirement for teachers.
However, these certificates were soon dismissed by others as simply ‘girls’ qualifications. To coincide with the introduction of new university legislation in 1873, Isabella orchestrated a failed memorial to the House of Commons and two petitions to (QUI) urging them ‘to admit ladies to share the best teaching, that of the universities themselves.’ They failed but the fire of persistency in Isabella remained.
The reformers had something to celebrate in 1879. The University Education Act provided the opportunity for women to gain degrees, but it was only an examining body – women could graduate wherever they attended classes (mainly female colleges) but they were still denied the privilege of attending lectures at established universities. The Belfast Ladies’ Institute was the first to instigate action by petitioning Queen’s College Belfast successfully in 1882. In November 1882, it approved the first admission of women to physics, Greek and mathematics degrees. This was a significant achievement – the first university in Ireland to permit women to attend lectures and study for degrees. In contrast, Trinity College Dublin did not let women grace its lecture halls until 1904.
Isabella did not view improvement in female educational rights in isolation. She campaigned for gender equality in a myriad of spheres. She was involved in a number of campaigns including advocating for the Married Women Property Act (protecting women’s right to own property), repealing the Contagious Diseases Act (which legislated that any woman suspected of prostitution could be subject to an intrusive internal examination for venereal diseases – an infringement on civil liberties) and for women’s suffrage (she created the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society).
However, Isabella’s view of reform was limited by her middle-class background. Isabella failed to challenge the class stratification of society and was very much campaigning for improvements which would only affect middle-class girls. For example, lower class girls would never have been able to afford the fees of secondary and third-level education. In this sense, Isabella was very much a product of her time.
Without a doubt, Isabella’s example inspires and challenges me. Isabella was one of a group of localised women, now largely forgotten, who helped to redefine the cultural construction of femininity. Isabella actively challenged the assumption that ‘...women don’t need an education; their hearts are of more consequence than their minds.’ Even though Isabella never attended university herself, she ensured that many others, myself included could. Her legacy lives on in us.
Who are the women in your local region who fought for equal rights and who have now largely been forgotten by history? Share and remember them in the comments box.
Dr Claire Rush is the Esther Generation Project Co-ordinator with The Girls’ Brigade England
& Wales and she is also co-author of Have Women Made a Difference? Women in Irish Universities, 1850 – 2010?