Women activists of the nineteenth century

[Maria Luddy is a contemporary women's historian. Here she discusses how women's issues were advanced during the nineteenth century.]

The debates taking place in Ireland from the 1860s about women's education, employment, etc., were influenced by ideas infiltrating the country from England and America. These debates were affected by the changing cultural and economic values of post-famine Ireland. Informal committees of women were organised from the 1860s to campaign for changes in women's access to secondary and higher education, and to change the laws relating to the property of married women. It was not, however, until the formation of the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1870 that an organised and extended campaign based on a perception of sexual and gender oppression operated on a national scale.

In 1864, parliament passed the first of three statutes which permitted the compulsory inspection of prostitutes for venereal diseases in certain military camps in England and Ireland. The three acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 were introduced to control the spread of venereal disease amongst the soldiery, which by 1864 was deemed responsible for one out of every three sick cases in the army. In Ireland the 'subjected' districts were Cork, Cobh and the Curragh army camp in Kildare. Opposition to the acts arose for a number of reasons but in Ireland they centred on the belief that the Acts sanctioned vice and were an interference with the civil liberty of women. Some women in Ireland who opposed the Acts formed branches of the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, originally formed in England in 1869 by Josephine Butler. The methods used by the campaigners were typical of those strategies used by middle-class women in political campaigning: meetings, 'at homes', lobbying of MPs and other influential individuals, and the use of petitions and deputations. The campaign carried on until 1883, when the Acts were suspended and they were finally repealed in 1886. The majority, if not all, of the members of the Ladies' National Association in Ireland were Non-Conformists. Catholic women do not appear to have been involved in the campaign in Ireland. For 'respectable' women to speak openly on matters pertaining to sexual morality was to challenge the stereotype of the quiet, submissive and passive woman portrayed by the Victorians.

A number of activists in this campaign became involved in the suffrage issue, which began to be discussed seriously in Ireland in the early 1870s. By 1876, two suffrage societies had been established, one in Belfast organised by Isabella M.S. Tod, and another in Dublin initiated by Anna and Thomas Haslam. Those who joined these organisations again tended to be Protestant and Non-Conformist. The demand for suffrage was the principal means whereby women fought for political involvement on the same terms as men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The majority of suffragists did not fight for universal suffrage, but wanted the vote, which was limited by property restrictions, on the same terms as men. It was not until the early years of the twentieth century, when militant suffragism forced itself on the public's attention, that suffrage became an important issue in Irish politics.

Maria Luddy, Women in Ireland 1800-1918, Cork, 1995, p.240.


  1. What kind of source is this? What was the author's aim in writing the passage?
  2. What issues influenced the debate on women's issues in Ireland in the 1860s?
  3. How did the debate on the Contagious Diseases Acts lead to wider campaigns on women's issues?
  4. Why, in your opinion, were few Catholic women involved in the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act?
  5. What methods were used by the campaigners?
  6. What were the original demands of the suffragist campaigners with regard to votes for women?
  7. Summarise the extract in about 250 words.


  1. Research Josephine Butler; Isabella Tod; Anna & Thomas Haslam.
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