Tod, Isabella (1836–1896)

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Tod, Isabella (1836–1896)

Irish feminist campaigner and journalist. Born Isabella Maria Susan Tod in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 18, 1836; died in Belfast, Ireland, on December 8, 1896; daughter of James Banks Tod and Maria Isabella (Waddell) Tod; educated at home; never married; no children.

Isabella Tod's biographer Maria Luddy observes that to write her life is to write the history of Irish feminism in the critical last four decades of the 19th century. She was "the outstanding advocate of women's rights during this period." Tod was born in 1836 in Scotland but the family moved to Belfast, in northern Ireland, in the 1860s. Tod's mother was Irish and encouraged her daughter to read widely. She also interested her in woman's affairs. Isabella was devoted to her mother who died in 1877.

Tod's name first came to public prominence in 1867 when the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science held its annual meeting in Belfast. Tod's primary interest at this time was women's education, and she wrote a paper for the meeting entitled "On advanced education for girls of the upper and middle classes." There were increasing demands for more participation by women in education, and in Belfast Tod's fellow campaigners included Margaret Byers , headmistress of Victoria College, who became a close friend. In her paper, Tod argued that education was a complex process comprising three essential elements: moral and religious training; intellectual instruction; and mental discipline. She argued that if women were to take advantage of higher education, these elements had to be inculcated in school or college. Over the next decade, Tod and other campaigners in Belfast and Dublin lobbied and petitioned the government for reform. Their efforts were rewarded when the Irish University Act of 1879 opened degrees and scholarships to women. However, the educational facilities available to women were not addressed by the act and still lagged far behind those enjoyed by men. The following year, Tod was the main influence behind the establishment of the Ulster Head Schoolmistresses Association which worked closely with the Central Association for Irish Schoolmistresses. Both organizations were influential and worked throughout the 1880s and 1890s to advance the cause of women's education in Ireland.

Tod believed that education not only developed the intellectual and spiritual potential of women but served a profound social purpose as well. She was particularly critical of middle-class views of education for women. The middle classes expected their daughters to marry and to marry well, and they expected husbands to take active management of everything: "We shall not stop to discover whether such a state of things is even desirable. It is sufficient to point out that it does not and cannot exist." Tod became interested in the campaign to amend the Married Women's Property Act. As an active member of the Presbyterian Church, she regularly visited the poverty-stricken areas of Belfast and became aware of the economic exploitation of women whose earnings were appropriated by their husbands. She was the only woman who gave evidence in 1868 to the parliamentary select committee on the Married Women's Property Bill, and she emphasized that women must not only be allowed to keep their wages but to have their property rights recognized as well.

It was through her campaigns on this act that Tod became acquainted with Josephine Butler who was leading the movement to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. In Ireland, there were three districts with large military garrisons where women could be detained and forcibly subjected to medical examination for venereal disease. In 1869, Butler founded the Ladies National Association to campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act and by 1871 three branches had been established in Ireland. Along with Anna Haslam , Tod was active in the movement, both in Britain and Ireland, from the beginning. Butler described Tod as "one of the ablest, and certainly the most eloquent, of our women workers." In a speech in 1883, Tod deplored the double standard, "that unspeakably wicked idea that most men may be expected so to sin, and that in them it is a venial offence." The acts were suspended that year and repealed in 1886.

Tod had a lifelong interest in temperance. In an 1893 interview, she noted that her visits to the poor had "soon taught me that drink is the main cause of poverty, and that yet in a larger measure it is the cause of domestic discord and misery." In 1874, she joined the committee of the Belfast Women's Temperance Association which opened refreshment houses and organized meals for women working in factories. Since women suffered most from intemperance they became the focus of the Association's work, as Margaret Byers, secretary of the BWTA, stressed. Temperance should be inculcated in the home which was women's sphere. The BWTA extended its work to helping women prisoners for, as Tod wrote in 1881, "the world is unspeakably harder to a woman who falls than a man, and doors of escape which stand open to him are closed to her." By 1889, the BWTA claimed to have about 40 branches in Ireland. Tod was also active in the British temperance movement and was vice-president of the British Women's Temperance Association from 1877 to 1892.

Tod's campaigns on all these issues convinced her that women's suffrage was a vital cause. Politics, she argued, were part and parcel of everyone's life and represented not only material and intellectual choices for women but moral ones as well. Like many suffragists of the time she favored a restricted, property-based franchise. She spoke at meetings up and down the country and produced a stream of articles for Irish newspapers and journals. Although the struggle for the parliamentary franchise was not won until after her death she lived to see women win the vote in municipal elections, a success in which she had played a major role.

In 1886, the British prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, introduced his first Home Rule Bill which was intended to give limited self-government to Ireland. Opposition was intense in northeast Ireland where opinion favored the maintenance of the union with Britain. Tod was a committed unionist and devoted the rest of her life to resisting Home Rule. This lost her many friends from her various campaigns who had Home Rule sympathies, but her dedication also affected her health. After her death in December 1896, two scholarships were instituted in her memory, the first at Victoria College and the second for the woman achieving the highest marks at the Royal University.


Luddy, Maria. "Isabella M.S. Tod (1836–1896)," in Women, Power and Consciousness in 19th Century Ireland: Eight Biographical Studies. Edited by Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy. Dublin: Attic Press, 1984, pp. 197–230.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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