Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Genteel Revolutionaries, Anna and Thomas Haslam and the Irish Women’s Movement
Carmel Quinlan
Cork: Cork University Press, 2002.
57.25€, 265 pages, ISBN 185918328X.

Alexandra Poulain
Université de Paris IV


Carmel Quinlan’s Genteel Revolutionaries seeks to reappraise the importance of Anna and Thomas Haslam in the context of the Irish Women’s Movement, and to shed new light on a number of campaigns in which they were involved, such as the early promotion of birth control in Ireland, the campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, and most importantly the suffrage campaign. Being Unionists and of Quaker background, the Haslams did not take part in the major events and campaigns of their time (Fenianism, Land-Leagueism, etc.); while “the history of Irish feminism […] has been dominated by the nationalist agenda” [XX], the Haslams have been cast in relative obscurity, as “Anna Haslam cannot hope to compete with Maud Gonne MacBride or Countess Markievicz as a national icon” [XX]. However, Quinlan claims, the couple not only played a significant role in the early years of Irish feminism, but also contributed to the development of feminist thought in the United Kingdom.

The book starts with a short biographical sketch of the couple. Anna (b. 1829) and Thomas (b. 1825) were both of Irish Quaker stock. In 1848 they met in Yorkshire, where they were both teaching, but were married some years later in Ireland outside the Society of Friends, after Thomas had repudiated Quakerism. The couple settled in Dublin, where Thomas worked as a book-keeper until 1866 when his ill health forced him to abandon all paid work. It was then Anna who became the family supporter, running a small but successful family business alongside her considerable work in defence of the rights of women. They enjoyed a happy, deliberately childless marriage until Thomas’s death in 1917. Anna, who voted for the first time in the 1918 general election, died in 1922 just as the Free Irish State was being created.

Chapter 2 centres on Thomas’s first pamphlet on birth control, The Marriage Problem, published privately in 1866. Although the birth control movement was prominent in England, Thomas’s advocacy of birth control was unique in nineteenth-century Ireland. In England, the movement had originated with Malthusianism, and early nineteenth-century theorists, writing in the context of Utilitarianism, had advocated the necessity of artificial contraception. Thomas was familiar with the works of Place, Carlisle, and of American theorists on the subject of birth control, but was essentially influenced by Dr. Russel Thacher Trall’s Sexual Physiology (1866), which he “copiously glossed” in his own pamphlet. Trall’s preferred method of birth control was the observance of the so-called “safe period,” consisting in restricting copulation to the mid-cycle period—precisely the time when the woman is most fertile, as we now know. Though Trall stood firmly in defence of woman’s right to the integrity of her own person, Quinlan points out that Thomas Haslam’s approach was more problematic, as he suggests that young men who could not control their sexual drives should marry early rather than endanger their health by resorting to prostitutes—an argument which gave credence to the feminist view that birth control could make it more difficult for a wife to resist her husband’s “unreasonable” sexual demands, thus reducing a wife to a “virtual prostitute.” Quinlan then charts Thomas’s heated correspondence with John Stuart Mill and especially Francis W. Newman, who was determinedly opposed to birth control. An analysis of Anna’s correspondence with Marie Stopes shows that she “shared her husband’s conviction regarding the desirability of the widespread dissemination of information on birth control, particularly among the poor” [XX], whose plight she sought to alleviate by reducing their family size.

Thomas returned to similar subjects with a different approach in his next pamphlet, Duties of Parents (1872), the focus of chapter 3. “Haslam seemed ever willing to pronounce on matters on which he may not have had any particular expertise” [53], Quinlan remarks tersely. While he now recommended abstinence as the ideal method of birth control, a method which he apparently practised in his own couple, his emphasis here was on “positive procreation” and “social engineering” as a means of achieving the moral improvement of society. Adopting the Lamarckian view that acquired characteristics are passed on to the next generation, he sought to discourage the breeding of those deemed as morally unfit, regardless of class. Although he tended to view the plight of the poor as one of demoralization and degeneration, he believed in their capacity for self-improvement, contrary to the more brutal attitude of later-day eugenicists. Essentially, he emphasizes “the necessity of learning new habits of sexual continence, of thrift, hygiene and of moral and physical purity. Parents who succeeded […] in acquiring those admirable traits would in turn pass them on to their offspring, ensuring the ultimate perfection of mankind” [72-73].

Chapter 4 retraces the Haslams’ involvement in the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. Quinlan explains:

The CDAs introduced in 1864 in specific garrison towns in Great Britain and Ireland, were an attempt by the government to address the alarming prevalence of venereal disease among the military. The Acts allowed for the Compulsory examination of suspected prostitutes for venereal disease and for their subsequent detention and treatment. The campaign was a watershed in the development of feminist activism; it enabled women to speak in public on what was hitherto unspeakable, to organize and to lobby. [75]

While supporters of the Acts regarded prostitution as a necessary evil, and sought only to provide the military with uninfected sex, Thomas Haslam advocated that the men be allowed to marry, a view he defended in his 1870 pamphlet on prostitution. Until 1886 when the Acts were effectively repealed, Anna was active on the Dublin committee of the Ladies’ National Association, where “feminists challenged the sexual double standard by demanding an end to state-condoned male unchastity” [106].

Chapters 5 and 6, the core of Quinlan’s work, seek to reassess the importance of the Haslams’ role in the Irish suffrage movement. While the couple effectively founded the suffrage movement in Ireland, their action tends to be considered as “a mere prologue to the suffragette campaign of the early twentieth century” [108]. Of particular interest is Quinlan’s analysis of how the Irish suffrage campaign “was complicated by the national question;” while Anna was “a staunch Unionist,” and the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association which she founded was “largely unionist in sympathy,” a younger group of nationalist, pro-Home Rule suffragists emerged in later years to form the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908, whose more radical militancy tended to eclipse the work of the constitutional, law-abiding DWSA over the years. Although they worked within the existing power structures, however, Quinlan convincingly argues that the Haslams really espoused a radical view in “challenging the very fundamental tenet that political life was the prerogative of a male government” [145], and charts the progress of the suffrage campaign in Ireland until the 1918 election—a paradoxical victory for Anna as it resulted in the victory of Sinn Fein.

Quinlan’s book not only rehabilitates two major figures of Irish feminism, but also provides valuable discussions of Victorian thought on sexuality, gender and social engineering. It underlines the importance of a feminist movement working without the nationalist agenda, and thus constitutes a major contribution to the historiography of Irish feminism.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.