Isabella Maria Susan Tod, Irish women’s rights activist, dies at her home at 71 Botanic Avenue in Belfast on December 8, 1896. She is a formidable lady who uses her political skills to great advantage in order to further many causes.
Tod is born on May 18, 1836 in Edinburgh into a well known Irish Presbyterian family, her uncle being the Rev. Hope Masterton Waddell, one of the earliest Irish Presbyterian missionaries who served with the Scottish Missionary Society in Jamaica and whose great grandfather is the Rev. Charles Masterton, one of the most distinguished minsters of the General Synod of Ulster who ministers at Connor and Rosemary Street, Belfast. She is very proud of her Presbyterian heritage and of her Scottish ancestry.
The daughter of James Banks Tod, an Edinburgh merchant, Tod spends her early years in Edinburgh. She is educated at home by her mother, Maria Isabella Waddell, who comes from County Monaghan. The family moves to Belfast in the 1850s following the death of her father. She and her mother join Elmwood Presbyterian Church. Her Presbyterian background no doubt contributes to her radical views on social issues and women’s rights. She earns her living from writing and journalism, contributing, for example, to the Dublin University Magazine, an independent literary, cultural and political magazine, and to the Banner of Ulster, a Presbyterian newspaper.
Tod becomes one of the leading pioneers in the fight to improve the position of women. She is the only woman called to give evidence to a Select Committee of Enquiry on the reform of the married women’s property law in 1868 and serves on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee in London from 1873 to 1874. She successfully campaigns for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869 which enacted that a woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. She sees this legislation as an infringement of a woman’s civil liberties.
Tod is also a strong supporter of the temperance movement and, along with her friend Margaret Byers, forms the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association in 1874. Perhaps she is best known for her tireless campaign to extend the educational provision for middle-class women. For example, in 1878 she organises a delegation to London to put pressure on the Government to include girls in the Intermediate Education Act of 1878. The Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast, Alexandra College in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies Institute owe their existence largely to her. She writes a paper entitled “An Advanced Education for Girls in the Upper and Middle Classes” which is presented in 1867 at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and is among the pamphlets held in the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland library.
Tod is also an active campaigner for women’s right to vote, embarking on her first campaign in 1872 and addressing meetings in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coleraine and Londonderry. Following a meeting in Dublin a suffrage committee is established that later becomes the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society and in 1873 she forms the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society. She extends her meetings to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and is a frequent visitor to London to lobby politicians during the parliamentary session.
Tod is very much a staunch opponent of Home Rule, establishing a branch of the London-based Women’s Liberal Federation in Belfast and the Liberal Women’s Unionist Association. She sees unionism as the way to progress. “I knew that all the social work in which I had taken so prominent a part for 20 years was in danger and most of it could not exist a day under a petty legislature of the character which would be inevitable,” she says. “What we dread is the complete dislocation of all society, especially in regard to commercial affairs and organised freedom of action.”