Women in the DIB: Isabella Tod 1836-96


BY Georgina Clinton and Linde Lunney

Tod, Isabella Maria Susan (1836–96), feminist and reformer, was born 18 May 1836 in Edinburgh, daughter of James Banks Tod, merchant, and Maria Isabella Tod (née Waddell). There was at least one other child, a brother who became a prosperous merchant in London. Tod seems to have had no formal education but was encouraged by her mother in studies at home. Maria Tod (a native of Co. Monaghan) was related to Charles Mastertown (qv), an influential presbyterian minister, and to Hope Mastertown Waddell (1804–95), who was the first missionary from an Irish presbyterian background; he worked in Jamaica for thirteen years and then with Jamaican colleagues founded the Calabar mission in west Africa in the mid 1840s. The Tod family moved to Belfast when Isabella was in her twenties, and she became involved in charity work with poor people in the city. Her strong presbyterian religious beliefs and her experiences in Belfast prompted her to develop radical views on social issues and women's rights. She wrote anonymously in the 1860s and 1870s for the Dublin University Magazine and the Banner of Ulster, and in the early 1880s for the Northern Whig.

Like many of her contemporaries, she had her first experience of politics in response to the contentious provisions of the contagious diseases acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869. In an effort to combat venereal diseases among soldiers, the government had proposed such stringent controls of prostitution that middle-class women recognised, in some cases for the first time, that implicit in the legislation were double standards of sexual morality and of the social constraints that adversely affected the lives of all women. Tod was active in organisations set up to demand the repeal of the acts, notably the Ladies’ National Association, founded in 1869. She served on the London-based executive committee of this body until 1889.

Her work to reform the law with respect to women's education and married women's property (she was the only woman called to give evidence to the parliamentary select committee on the married women's property bill in 1868), combined with her temperance and charity work, convinced her that women were best suited to the work of reforming society, but that their success in this would depend on gaining the right to vote. It was because of this realisation that she was the main force behind the establishment of the Northern Ireland Society for Women's Suffrage in 1871, acting as secretary until the 1890s. This was the first organisation in Ireland that displayed a recognisably feminist political agenda. Tod campaigned vigorously for women's right to be considered as full members of society; she spoke at meetings throughout the country and in Britain, and was an effective lobbyist. She formed friendships with prominent suffragists in Ireland and Britain, and utilised contacts and networks assiduously in efforts to change society's attitudes. It was largely as a result of her work that Belfast women were allowed to vote in local elections in 1887, eleven years ahead of other Irish municipalities, and that in 1896, subject to property qualifications, women were permitted to become poor law guardians.

Her first public statement was a speech on women's education, delivered for her at a meeting in 1867 of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. She campaigned for the provision of secondary and higher education for women, and was involved with the foundation of several schools offering academic and practical education for girls – notably the Ladies’ Institute in Belfast (1867). The intermediate education bill of 1878 was intended to organise examinations and to award prizes based on their results, but it referred solely to male education. Consequently, Tod and Margaret Byers (qv), organised a delegation to London to urge the inclusion of girls in the bill. Their efforts were successful, and the intermediate education act gave awards to schools for all students who passed examinations, whether male or female. A year later (1879) the government introduced a new university bill, and Tod immediately formed a committee to lobby for the inclusion of women in any benefits that the bill would produce. She was the prime mover in the establishment (1880) of the Ulster Schoolmistresses’ Association, intended to act as a pressure group to foster female education.

Tod was a strict teetotaller and very involved in temperance work, seeing in this an important focus for women's efforts to improve society. She was a founding member with Margaret Byers of the Belfast Women's Temperance Association (formed 1874), and acted (1877–92) as vice-president of the British Women's Temperance Association. The Belfast group set up a number of projects intended to ameliorate life in the city: temperance eating-houses, a home for alcoholic women and another for destitute girls, and classes in hygiene and cookery for working-class women. The WTA split in 1893 and Tod became vice-president of the Women's Total Abstinence Union, a position she held until her death.

Tod's career took another direction when she threw herself into opposition to Gladstone's first home rule bill of 1886. She believed that an Irish-based assembly, bereft of the mitigating influence of the large numbers and wealth of the educated classes of the United Kingdom, would inevitably fall into illiberal and divisive modes of government, and that such a government would be inimical to all the causes for which she had campaigned. In 1886 she organised a Liberal Women's Unionist Association in Belfast to formulate a policy of opposition. Tod cared so passionately about this issue that she campaigned in England as well as Ireland on behalf of the liberal unionists. The split between unionists and nationalists over home rule was mirrored within the suffrage movement, and Tod was estranged, sometimes permanently, from some of her suffragist friends who supported the bill.

In 1884 a testimonial worth £1,000 was presented to her, and she was honoured in 1886 by the presentation of a portrait. She lived, unmarried, with her mother, who died in 1877. For many years her secretary, Gertrude Andrews, was a constant companion. After years of illness, Tod died 8 December 1896 at her home at 71 Botanic Avenue, Belfast. In October 1898 a memorial portrait of her by Margaret Rothwell (1890) was unveiled in the Free Public Library of Belfast. It is now held in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Annual scholarships of £30 are awarded at QUB in Tod's memory.

Belfast News Letter, 10 Dec. 1896; James Dewar (ed.), A history of Elmwood church (1900); Maria Luddy, ‘Isabella M. S. Tod (1836–1896)’,  Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy (ed.), Women, power and consciousness in nineteenth-century Ireland (1995); Maria Luddy, ‘Women and politics in nineteenth century Ireland’, Maryann G. Valiulis and Mary O'Dowd (ed.), Women and Irish history (1997), 89–108; Diane Urquhart, ‘An articulate and definite cry for political freedom: the Ulster suffrage movement’, Women's History Review, xi, no. 2 (2002), 273–92; information from Eileen Black, Ulster Museum, Belfast; Tomás O'Riordan, ‘Isabella Tod’, (photo) (internet material downloaded July 2006)

ISABELLA TOD is one of 938 women whose lives are covered in the DIB. The 938 lives range from the 6th century to the 21st. They include Sarah Harding, the eighteenth-century printer and publisher, Joan Denise Moriarty (d. 1992), choreographer, Veronica Guerin (d. 1996), journalist, Joan Trimble (d. 2000), pianist, composer and newspaper proprietor, Sighle Humphreys (d. 1994), republican activist, Maura Laverty (d. 1966), author and broadcaster, Dame Dehra Parker (d. 1963), Northern Ireland government minister, Barbara Verschoyle (d. 1937), land agent, Augusta Gregory (d. 1932), playwright and patron of the arts, and Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill (d. c. 1800), poet.

The Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography is published in nine volumes and online by Cambridge University Press. The print edition is available from Brookside Publishing Services (email or phone +353 1 2989937); to subscribe to the online edition (, email

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