A history of women in Scotland

05 February 2018
Mill_Workers_at_Barrmill,_Ayrshire-63148.jpg Mill workers at Crawfords Brothers Factory in Barrmill, North Ayrshire, Scotland.
Professor Elizabeth Ewan presents a wide-ranging overview of the study of women in Scotland and their role in the country’s history.

The year 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the grant of votes to women over 30 in the UK. Ten years later, women received the vote on the same terms as men. Currently, a woman heads the government in Scotland. Politically, women have never been more visible. What about their role in Scotland’s history?

Martyrs, heroines and ordinary women

Much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing about women in Scotland’s past focused on heroines and/or martyrs. Women of the Reformation, the Covenanters, or the Jacobites were celebrated, as was the tragic figure Mary Queen of Scots. In 1909, a parade along Edinburgh’s Princes Street, in support of women’s suffrage, included famous historical heroines. Following full suffrage in 1928, several new works in the 1930s focused on individual women, some of them less well-known.

The modern field of Scottish women’s history in Scotland really began in the 1980s. A survey of Scottish women’s lives 1080-1980, a study of the Scottish witch hunt where questions of gender were foregrounded, and a study of illegitimacy 1660-1780 that revealed the riches of the Scottish kirk session records for women’s lives, demonstrated the potential for research in the field. The Glasgow Women’s Group produced a bibliography of sources for the history of Scottish women. The development of social history also contributed to bringing women into the picture of Scotland’s past.

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In the 1990s work on nineteenth and twentieth-century women’s lives examined the public and private roles of women, contributing to a lively debate about the concept of separate spheres for women and men. Other topics included more detailed studies of Scottish suffrage campaigns, servants, education, and marriage. At the end of the 1990s an edited collection looked at women from c.1100-c.1750, while a second introduced an important comparative element with research in other countries. There was also growing interest in women among literary scholars, with modern editions of women’s writings produced and research into the perceptions of women in Scottish writing from the medieval to the modern period.

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Women’s history collaborations

Much of the work on women’s history has been collaborative, in the form of joint projects and edited collections, as well as the more traditional single-authored works. This feature of the field has continued to be a strength since 2000. Women’s History Scotland (formerly Scottish Women’s History Network) brought together scholars in Scotland working on women’s history, not only in Scotland but elsewhere as well. A meeting in 2001 to discuss ways forward resulted in the commissioning of two collaborative projects, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, with over 270 contributors providing entries on over 800 women, and a companion volume of collected essays examining how the view of Scottish history from 1707 changes when gender is considered. A new updated and expanded edition of the Dictionary will appear in 2018. (some samples of entries are provided on this website).

WHS also commissioned a documentary source book on nineteenth-century Scottish women, providing many archival sources in print for the first time. Working with partners including the Scottish education authority, the Girl Guides, and Glasgow Women’s Library (founded in 1991 and established in its own premises at 23 Landressy Street, Glasgow, since 2015), WHS has also sponsored new learning resources on women for schoolchildren, and a website Mapping Memorials to Scottish Women which records all memorials to women in Scotland. Other collaborative efforts are also making major contributions, including women’s history trails in a number of cities, and histories of women in a particular locality. The Saltire Society has worked to bring Scottish women, both living and deceased, to public attention in its Outstanding Women of Scotland, while the writer Nan Shepherd now appears on Scottish currency. Since its first year of publication, History Scotland has also played a major role in publishing articles on Scottish women.

Recent progress

The field continues to grow in strength as there is increasing academic research and public interest in the story of Scotland’s women. Val McDermid’s recent tribute to Scottish women writers in Edinburgh is one example. Several art galleries and museums have held exhibitions featuring women in the last decade. Historians, literary scholars, and art historians have produced works on individual women, as well as on such topics as love and intimacy in early modern Scottish marriages, family, childhood, Shetland women, women and work in many different centuries from the seventeenth to the twentieth, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals of World War One, women and culture, and many others. The study of gender has also developed with recent works exploring what masculinity meant for Scottish men in different periods. With the establishment of the Centre for Gender History at Glasgow University in 2008 and with growing numbers of postgraduate students interested in the study of women and gender in the Scottish past, the field will continue to flourish.

Women’s history – the future

The picture is generally a positive one, but there is still some way to go. Women’s history is flourishing but it is still to some extent separate from mainstream Scottish history. Conferences on the state of Scottish history generally include sessions on gender history, although the fact that these are usually separate sessions sometimes limits interaction with other fields of history. The degree to which the research on women is incorporated into general national histories, especially those published to meet the growing interest in the nation’s history since the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, varies considerably. As research and popular interest continue to grow, however, awareness of the roles of women in Scotland’s past has moved far beyond the trio of St Margaret, Mary Queen of Scots, and Flora MacDonald. There are hopeful signs that the time is approaching when Scottish women’s history is no longer in a realm of its own.

For further reading on Scottish women's history and the works mentioned above, see the online bibliography at WISH (Women in Scottish History).

Professor Elizabeth Ewan is Professor of History and Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph. She is co-editor of the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, which is due for publication by Edinburgh University Press in 2018. Professor Ewan is a patron of History Scotland magazine.