Anna Haslam (1829-1922)

The name “Haslam” might not mean anything to you – or you may associate it with the English rock singer and songwriter, or the Canadian skateboarder. We also had to read up on who “Anna Haslam” was, but still want to quickly take the 100th anniversary of her death, which recently passed (28th November), as an opportunity to pay tribute to this impressive woman.


Ireland and Irish women – indeed, actually, the whole of Irish society – owe a lot to Anna Haslam. After many desperate years, the fact that abortion is now, as of 2019, finally allowed within the first twelve weeks without needing to state a reason or, in any event, in medical emergencies, is, in a way, also due to her tireless efforts in championing women's rights, in this case birth control.


Anna Maria Haslam was born in 1829 to an Irish Miller, the sixteenth of 17 children. Her mother, Jane, was a fierce campaigner against slavery. As usual among Quakers, the daughters received the same upbringing and (school) education as the sons. This also meant that Anna was allowed to read to her heart's content. Among others, she devoured the books of the first female English sociologist, Harriet Martineau. After completing her schooling, she helped her parents run a soup kitchen during the Great Irish Famine (1845 and 1849), for, in the wake of multiple crop failures caused by potato blight, one million people starved to death – about twelve percent of the Irish population – and another two million felt compelled to emigrate. 

However, education for girls was also a concern of hers, which is why she opened a workshop for crocheting and knitting together with her sister Deborah. Soon, more than 100 girls worked there, thereby earning their own money. Later, she also founded the Central Association of Irish Schoolmistresses and Other Ladies Interested in Education. 


Such initiatives were kindled because women’s participation in the provision of education was rejected by many at the time, just as their participation in politics was. As late as 1867, the (exclusively male) members of the British House of Commons (responsible for legislation and the national budget) rejected the proposal to grant women the right to vote. 

Women – especially those from the middle class – were expected to remain in the domestic environment, whereas men propelled the industrial revolution, spreading trade and commerce, finance and new professions, and building wealth and political power. 


Her husband supported her campaign

Anna's husband, journalist and researcher Thomas Haslam, whom she married in 1854, was also a Quaker and an active supporter of women's rights. Together, the couple founded the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association (DSWA). Anna also advocated for the rights of female sex workers, who, in 1864, were made (solely) responsible under the law for the spread of venereal diseases, while the men involved remained blameless.


In 1868, Thomas Haslam published the book “The Marriage Problem”, in which he emphasised the importance for civilisation of birth control (by means of temporary abstinence). Paradoxically, however, his corresponding sources, in their ignorance, had given him false information about the “safe” periods during a woman's cycle. It was another 60 years until Hermann Knaus and Kyusaku Ogino clarified the connections between ovulation and menstruation.


Despite this serious technical error, the occupation with birth control as an objective and necessity is an important achievement of the Haslam couple. Anna advised women on contraception options and corresponded with Marie Stopes* in this regard, the Scottish women's rights activist and pioneer of family planning. 


Among the many other activities Anna Haslam undertook to strengthen women's rights is the introduction of female patrols in Dublin to save young girls from (forced) prostitution. As a result, the first female police officers were taken into service.


*See also