Carmel Quinlan, Genteel Revolutionaries: Anna and Thomas Haslam, Pioneers of Irish Feminism . Cork University Press, 2002

This very fine study demonstrates (as other recent studies have done) how far from single-issue were the interests of nineteenth century feminists. They were fighting on a range of fronts and we should not assume that simply because an individual may be best known for one particular campaign that they saw that as the most important and significant, rather than at a particular point in time absorbing most of their energies. Anna Haslam's career additionally leads us to interrogate the received wisdom that the campaign against the CD Acts drew women into wider political activity and the suffrage movement: Haslam found that the ‘time consuming extent of her repeal activities' interfered with her pre-existing work for the suffrage (p. 105).

Quinlan addresses the fascinating topic of feminist couples and the Victorian male feminist. Anna Haslam’s husband Thomas was devoted to the same causes as she was. The story of their ‘idyllic’ marriage raises a number of fascinating questions: doubtless unanswerable, though occasionally it would have been nice if Quinlan had speculated a little more. Thomas’s ‘health broke down in 1866’, necessitating Anna’s becoming the family breadwinner (she was already running a ‘stationery and toy warehouse’ to supplement their income, and by 1870 was the proprietor of a ‘Stationer and Fancy Repository’ in Dublin) (p. 14). The exact nature of his illness is not clear. It did not prevent him from producing several publications, including The Marriage Problem (1868) which advocated the use of the ‘safe period’ for contraceptive purposes (though, as in most nineteenth century texts, got it completely wrong). The couple did not have any children, by mutual agreement (‘too poor... and unsuitable to be parents’, p. 15). In his later tract, Duties of Parents (1872), Thomas advocated sexual abstinence for family limitation, and according to Anna, in a letter written in old age to Marie Stopes, daughter of family friend Charlotte Stopes, they had practised abstinence from a very early stage in the marriage, although they ‘slept together for over 50 years – and were a most loving couple’ (p. 15). While it is true, as Quinlan argues, that a husband already committed to feminist causes was unlikely to force unwelcome attentions on a wife (and cites a number of other cases of similar celibate unions, p. 17), it is possible to wonder to what extent men had internalised inhibitingly negative ideas about male sexuality (‘lustfulness’). Thomas can also be located in the attempt to re-envision masculinity as embodied in control and self-restraint, which became so significant in the social purity movement. There is also a possibility that his ‘delicate constitution’ (Quinlan detects ‘a hint of hypochondria’) (p. 18) meant that his own sexual drive was fairly low (and medical authorities of the day considered sexual activity to be potentially debilitating even for healthy men).

Quinlan recuperates a period of intense and essential activity by nineteenth-century feminists which is often, if not overlooked, treated in a somewhat condescending fashion as an overture to the more militant campaigns of the early twentieth century. She points out that their ‘patient and decorous methods... had achieved reforms central to the basic cause of equality’ (p. 145). Her oxymoronic title Genteel Revolutionaries serves to remind us of the truly revolutionary struggle being waged by nineteenth century campaigners who retained the outward signs of respectability, indeed, the latter were often essential weapons. Quinlan also clearly situates the Haslams within their Irish context, while emphasising the ways in which they saw themselves as engaged in wider national concerns. In spite of their Quaker background (Thomas repudiated the Society of Friends and Anna was expelled for marrying him, but they remained very much associated with Quakerism) and their Unionist political sympathies, they forged alliances and retained strong connections with a later generation of Catholic Nationalists. In particular younger Irish suffragists paid tribute to Anna’s groundwork.

Quinlan’s study is a triumph over her initial discovery that the Haslam papers alleged to be in the National Library of Ireland did not in fact exist. There are perforce a number of lacunae in the story, in particular the earlier years of Thomas and Anna’s adult lives. By middle and later life they were well-documented public figures, and in spite of the paucity of material on their private lives, Quinlan has provided a sensitive reconstruction of the individuals behind the campaigns and the publications. While clearly of significant interest to historians of Ireland, Genteel Revolutionaries can also be recommended to all students of ‘first-wave’ feminism.

Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London


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