Written by Claire Rush
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 which was founded in 1867. As a result of its collective pressure and advocacy work, women were admitted into the lecture halls of a university in Ireland for the first time in 1882.
I loved exploring the life of Isabella for my MA and PhD. Without a doubt, her example and character has inspired me in a number of ways.
Isabella was a bold leader. 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 law 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 circles within her own Presbyterian church community. Some believed that women’s religious and moral duties, their most important God-sanctioned obligations, would be threatened if they chased intellectual pursuits and there would be a ‘growth of young girls who had lost the true glory and beauty of womanhood’ (editorial in Witness,1885). 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.
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 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 both bold and tenacious.
Isabella also had a collaborative spirit. 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 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.
Without a doubt, Isabella inspires and challenges me. Isabella was one of a group of localised women in Belfast, 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, her tenacity, boldness and persistence for gender justice ensured that many others, myself included could.
Her legacy lives on in us.
Dr Claire Rush is Participation & Advocacy 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? Follow her on twitter @drclairerush.