THE woman who pioneered the suffragette movement on the island of Ireland has had her name stamped onto the fabric of Belfast.
Liberal unionist Isabella Tod formed what was believed to be Ireland’s first Suffragette Society in 1871 in the city.
And on International Women’s Day on Friday Dr Myrtle Hill, former director for the Centre for Women’s Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, spoke at the unveiling of the plaque in her name.
Asked why it took so long to commemorate someone who was such a prominent figure of her time, she said: “I think it was identifying a place where she actually lived because she moved around quite a bit – she was a single woman, and a professional woman.”
It was not just getting women the vote that motivated her.
“(She was) very important in terms of educational reform for women, opening up opportunities for women to enter university, and she was very active in all sorts of other social reform,” she added.
One such campaign was against the Contagious Diseases Act, something which granted striking powers to the police.
Designed to prevent the spread of venereal disease to soldiers, it gave officers the right to stop any woman on suspicion of being a prostitute and order them to undergo medical examination.
But throughout her campaigning, she was peaceful, she said, concentrating on lobbying and giving talks rather than the window-smashing antics of the later suffragettes.
Tasked with unveiling the plaque, Baroness Blood – an Ulster woman who sits as a Labour peer in the House of Lords – told the crowd of around 40 huddled beneath awnings and umbrellas on Botanic Avenue: “In Northern Ireland, in many ways, we’re better off. But when you think of what Isabella Tod fought for some of those issues are still around today and we need to be fighting for them.”
She mentioned in particular the suppression of women in the Middle East and central Asia.
Dr Margaret Ward, director of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, said: “I’m a historian so she’s not unknown to me. But I realise she might not be known to a lot of people. I think that’s the fate so many women have. There are a lot of women, many made huge contributions in terms of social progress, who are not known.”