Scotland's women step out of the shade

March 3, 2006

From queens to fishwives, suffragettes to prostitutes: the first Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women is helping to address concerns about gender imbalance in historical record.

The dictionary, to be launched on International Women's Day next Wednesday, has more than 800 entries that help write the women who were "hidden from history" back into Scottish heritage. It has been produced by Women's History Scotland, part of the UK-wide Women's History Network, which unites academic and non-academic researchers.

Sin Reynolds, emeritus professor of French at Stirling University who is one of the editors, said: "Women's history tends to be less hierarchical because there are not that many women in departments of history. Our contributors include librarians, archivists, curators, mature students and women who have taken a break to have children and are doing part-time research degrees."

Lynn Abrams, professor of gender history at Glasgow University and convener of WHS, said: "There are lots of women, and men, who just didn't get on the academic ladder at the right time but who are still interested and engaged in women's history."

Professor Abrams is co-editor of the recently published Gender in Scottish History since 1700 , which tackles key aspects of the past 300 years from a female perspective.

June Purvis, professor of women's and gender history at Portsmouth University and an executive committee member of WHN, said: "The whole point is to bring women into the frame. It pushes the boundaries in new directions. History is still very male focused. You can look through key journals and there's still an absence of gender issues."

The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women , edited by Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes and Siân Reynolds, co-ordinating editor Rose Pipes, Edinburgh University Press; Gender in Scottish History since 1700 , edited by Lynn Abrams, Eleanor Gordon, Deborah Simonton and Eileen Janes Yeo, Edinburgh University Press.


  • Una Cameron, 1904-87, the first woman to climb the two peaks of Mount Kenya
  • Victoria Drummond, 1894-1978, the first British woman to serve as chief engineer in the Merchant Navy
  • Doris Zinkeisen, 1898-1991, a war artist who depicted Belsen concentration camp
  • Mary Somerville, 1780-1872, the "queen of science" after whom Oxford's Somerville College is named
  • Maw Broon, "born" 1936, fictional matriarch of the Broons family in D. C. Thomson's Sunday Post.


* Alison McCall , a non-academic member of Women's History Scotland, loved history at school but did not believe it possible to become an academic historian.

"The received wisdom was that there was no point in studying history because I would never get a job. So I became a solicitor, and dreamt of the day I could study history for the sheer fascination of it," she said.

She gave up her job to bring up three children, took an honours BA in history through the Open University and is now considering a PhD on career women in Victorian Aberdeen.

Ms McCall has contributed several entries to the new dictionary. "It's always men, men and more men, yet there were all these women doing amazing things who just don't appear in books."

* Local merchant Alexander Cant lies dead beside a pair of fire tongs, flanked by his wife and her mother, Alison Rough, in Edinburgh in 1535.

This reconstructed crime scene is part of the city's latest heritage attraction, The Real Mary King's Close. It is based on research by Elizabeth Ewan , a Scottish history expert at the University of Guelph in Canada and a leading member of Women's History Scotland. She became fascinated by medieval Scotland on a postgraduate scholarship at Edinburgh University. She uncovered Rough's story when researching court and property records.

"Alison Rough is not that unusual - she is just unusual in that her name kept appearing in the records. There are all sorts of stories out there to be found," Professor Ewan said.

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