Lassies, ladies and queens

The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women
October 27, 2006

Until recently, the history of Scotland was written largely by men and about men's activities, in what were considered all-male concerns such as battles, politics, work, trade unionism and sport. But in the past 15 years, research about Scottish women has flourished, although biographical detail is still often lacking. This fascinating book, which has emerged from an initiative proposed by the Scottish Women's History Network (renamed Women's History Scotland in 2005), aims to fill that gap.

It offers biographical sketches of 830 Scottish women from the earliest times to the near present.

The entries fall roughly into a range of broad categories. In the first group are women who were famous or eminent, the "celebrities" whose names one would expect to find in such a dictionary, such as Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87). The devout Roman Catholic plotted against Elizabeth I of England who, reluctantly, had her executed. Several sources are listed about Mary's life, but little is known about many other Scottish queens, especially those from earlier periods.

A second group of entries comprises women best known as the wives, mothers or lovers of famous men, such as Margaret Stewart of Ochiltree (c 1548-1611) who, in 1564, married the minister and Protestant reformer John Knox. The union was considered a "very godly match" even though the groom, a widower, was about 50 years old and his bride a mere lass of 16 or 17.

Few commented on the wide age gap, preferring instead to remark on their disparity in status: Margaret was a noblewoman, her spouse of common mercantile stock.

The largest category of entries relates to women of achievement in fields such as education, sport, opera, medicine, religion, gardening, cinema, politics, literature and the arts. The indomitable Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a weaver from Dundee, broke the bounds of conventional Victorian femininity by becoming a celebrated missionary in Calabar, West Africa. Her relationship to colonialism is complex because she believed that the superiority of British values lay only in the belief in God: once Africans became Christians, their inferiority faded away.

Slessor had fame in her lifetime, unlike "James Barry" (c 1790-1865), an army medical officer and reformer who attracted notoriety after death when it was sensationally announced that "he" was female. Barry was probably born Margaret Bulkley; her sexual identity was transformed by her patrons so that their charge could eventually train as a doctor. Although some historians portray Barry as a cross-dressing woman who willingly adopted a male persona, others stress that she was of indeterminate sex.

Many of the women of achievement recorded here lived in the 20th century, such as Dr Elsie Inglis, founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals in the First World War, and Helen Crawfurd, who was active in the rent strike on Clydeside. There is a fair sprinkling, too, of activists in the Edwardian women's movement, such as the militant Ethel Moorhead (1869-1955), the first suffragette to be force-fed, and Flora Drummond (1878-1949), who organised and led suffragette processions. She was known as "The General" because she wore a quasi-military uniform, complete with peaked cap.

One unusual aspect of this volume is the inclusion of "ordinary" women who led uneventful lives but nonetheless represented particular aspects of Scottish life. Helen Cordiner (1893-1964) gutted and graded herrings in ten to twelve-hour shifts. Mary Manson (1897-1994) was a crofter, storyteller and hand-knitter who learnt Fair Isle patterns from an aunt. The wearing of Fair Isle golf sweaters by the Prince of Wales in the 1920s increased demand for her work, and one of her shawls was presented to the Princess Royal upon her marriage in 1922.

The strength of this volume lies in its breadth of coverage and in its focus on "Scottishness", a slippery concept that raises many issues. What, if any, are the particular Scottish traits that unite all these women, including those who lived in the Scottish diaspora in Africa, Australia, India, North America and other regions? How different are their experiences from those of English, Welsh and Irish women? Although there are no easy answers to these questions, there is no doubt that The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women is a major achievement in Scottish history.

This is a book to dip into and enjoy because it places on the map the important contribution that Scottish women have made to Scottish national identity.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women

Editor - Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 403
Price - £60.00
ISBN - 0 7486 1713 2

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