Isabella Tod was born on 18 May 1836, in Edinburgh. Her father James was a Scottish merchant, and her mother Maria Isabella (née Waddell) was from Co. Monaghan. The family came to live in Belfast in the 1860s. Tod was proud of her Scottish background, and often referred to the fact that one of her ancestors signed the Solemn League and Covenant at Hollywood, Co. Down, in 1646. Another proud recollection was that her great-grandfather was a colonel in the Volunteers of 1782. One of her ancestors was the Rev. Charles Masterton, a leading Presbyterian minister of Belfast in the seventeenth century. Her attachment to the Presbyterian faith was strong and her religious beliefs were to influence her political activism.
Tod was largely self-educated and had no formal education. It is clear that her mother was a major influence on her life and Tod looked after her until her death in 1877. Her interest in the affairs of women was apparently fostered by her mother whose encouragement led her to engage in private study. Her initial means of raising the status of women (and making herself an income) was through writing, and in the 1860s and the 1870s she contributed pieces anonymously to the Dublin University Magazine, the Banner of Ulster and the Northern Whig. She was a leading advocate of extending to middle-class women the education that would qualify them for proper employment.
Tod was a pioneer in lobbying for dramatic changes in girls’ education at the second and third levels. The Ladies’ Collegiate School Belfast (1859), the Queen’s Institute Dublin (1861), Alexandra College Dublin (1866), and the Belfast Ladies’ Institute (1867) owe their existence to Tod’s campaigns. In 1878 she organised a delegation to London to put pressure on the Government to include girls in the Intermediate Education Act. In 1874, Tod published a paper entitled On advanced education for girls in the upper and middle classes. It had been presented in 1867 at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. She called for practical education along the lines of the Belfast Ladies’ Institute. The Institute organised lectures on modern languages, astronomy, history, and other topics. Tod also acted as Secretary of the Institute which further campaigned to allow women access to University education in Ireland. She was the main influence behind the establishment of the Ulster Head Schoolmistresses Association, formed in 1880. This association worked closely with the Central Association of Irish Schoolmistresses and other Ladies interested in Irish Education (AISLIE), established in Dublin in 1882.
Tod was involved in the important campaign to amend the laws governing married women’s property. As an active member of the Presbyterian Church, she was a regular visitor to the deprived parts of Belfast, and she was well aware of the economic exploitation of women. She was the only woman called to give evidence to the 1868 Select Committee Inquiry on the Married Women’s Property. She advocated that any reforms must cover both working and middle-class women. She was determined that the changes should go beyond protecting women’s right to their wages and include their independent rights to own property of their own. She also served on the executive of the Married Women’s Property Committee which was based in London. Through her activities on this Committee, she came to know reformers, such as Frances Power Cobbe, Lydia Becker, Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Josephine Butler.
She had a lifelong interest in temperance. In 1874 she and Margaret Byers formed the Belfast Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA). Tod was a committee member, and she undertook speaking engagements to further the cause. By 1875 the BWTA had opened three temperance food houses in the city, one of which offered ‘nutritious dinners to girls engaged in factories’. The Belfast Ladies Temperance Association expanded from supporting temperance to starting schemes for social reform. The Association established a Prison Gate Mission, and a home for alcoholic women. It began classes in cookery and hygiene, and attempted to raise the moral and social standards of the homes of the poor. In 1882 the BWTA opened a house for destitute girls. By 1889 it claimed to have forty branches around the country. In 1894 all these branches merged to form a single organisation, the Irish Women’s Temperance Union. In addition to her temperance activities in Ireland, Tod also acted as vice-president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, from 1877 to 1892. In 1893 Tod became vice-president of the Irish Women’s Total Abstinence Union, a position she held until her death in 1896.
Tod also called for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Under these Acts, prostitutes were forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease and she considered this an infringement of women’s civil liberties. The National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (NARCDA) and the Ladies’ National Association (LNA), both formed in England in 1869, had branches which were organised in Ireland by Tod and Josephine Butler. Tod served on the executive committee of the London-based LNA. She also served on the general council of the NARCDA. By 1871 three branches of the LNA had been established in Belfast, Dublin and Cork. In Ireland, the LNA was a small and local affair and it served to support the aims of the parent body in London. In practice, this meant fundraising, organising petitions to Parliament against the Acts, and trying to change public opinion by distributing pamphlets and papers and by holding meetings. Tod was elected secretary of the Belfast branch of the LNA.
She used the work of the women in LNA to support women’s claim to the vote. She established the Northern Ireland Society of Women’s Suffrage Society (NISWS) in 1871, which was linked to the London Women’s Suffrage Society. She remained secretary of the NISWS until the 1890s. She travelled the country tirelessly speaking at public meetings on the suffrage issue. She lobbied for formal political rights for women and played a key role in three areas: firstly, the fight for parliamentary suffrage; secondly, the issue of municipal voting for women; and thirdly, the attempts to have women elected as Poor Law Guardians. The first area was not resolved in her lifetime, but the success of women in the other two owed much to her efforts. The women of Belfast were granted the franchise in 1887; the women of the rest of Ireland had to wait until until 1898. Through her tireless efforts, Tod was to become friends with many of the leading English suffragists—Lydia Becker, Helen Blackburn, and Josephine Butler.
She totally opposed the Irish Home Rule Bills and this lost her some friends in the suffrage movement. She organised a Liberal Women’s Unionist Association in Belfast and spoke on platforms in Devon, Cornwall, and London. She argued that: ‘Home Rule would destroy Ireland’s economic base, not only would there be a withdrawal of capital… many skilled artisans would come over to England which would not tend to raise wages’. She worked tirelessly as a publicist and was the only woman member of the executive committee of the Ulster Women’s Liberal Unionist Association in 1888. While she campaigned in England, her organisation in Ireland raised a petition, signed by 30,000 women, which was presented to Queen Victoria asking her not to give her royal assent to the Bill, should it be passed.
The last few years of Tod’s life were dogged by bad health. Her work was much appreciated by many individuals in both England and Ireland. In 1884 she was presented with a testimonial of £1,000 contributed mainly by her ‘English fellow workers in various philanthropies’. In November 1886 she was presented with a full length portrait as a token of appreciation for her work in Ireland. Another testimonial, some years later, consisted of an album, which contained 120 signatories, many from the front rank of the Unionist Party. Her last public appearance, just before her death, was at a meeting about distressed Armenians. She died at her home in Belfast on 8 December 1896. She is regarded as the most prominent feminist of the nineteenth century.
Writings & Studies. Isabella M. S. Tod, On the education of girls of the middle classes (London 1874); repr. in Dale Spender (ed), The education papers: women’s quest for equality in Britain, 1850–1912 (New York 1987). Mary Cullen & Maria Luddy (ed), Women, power, and consciousness in 19th-century Ireland: eight biographical studies (Dublin 1995).