‘How British is Scotland? A Gendered Perspective’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 18 March, the Centre welcomed Prof Lynn Abrams to discuss ‘How British is Scotland? A Gendered Perspective?’. This continued the ongoing ‘How British is Scotland?’ series and follows Prof Dauvit Broun’s lecture in February. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Focusing on the inter-war period, Prof Abrams examined how several prominent Scottish women used the nation as a springboard into the international arena. These well-connected, often aristocratic women were at the forefront of a feminist and pacifist movement that rose above national boundaries.


Virginia Woolf, writing in 1938, rejected the idea that women must throw in their lot with the patriarchy to reconstruct from within. Woolf felt feminism and anti-militarism aligned and to directly engage with the male-dominated world would only serve to perpetuate these unjust systems. Instead, she called for women to form their own society and famously stated:

As a woman my country is the whole world.

Predating Woolf, the main protagonists of this lecture advocated engagement, perhaps wary of being stranded in a Woolfian limbo. At the Hague Congress in 1915, a delegation of 1,000 women from 12 European countries attempted to exert a moral influence on the belligerent countries of World War 1. Mary Sheepshanks commented:

Men have made this war; let women make peace – a real and lasting peace’.

Among the tiny delegation of three women from the United Kingdom (most were prevented from attending) was Chrystal MacMillan, a Scottish suffragist. More well-known is Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, the Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, known as ‘Lady Aberdeen’. She was involved with the ICW (International Council of Women) for thirty-six years and was an advocate of women’s rights throughout her life. While she was once described as ‘not a feminist in the suffragette sense’, she was a committed campaigner at all levels of the social scale and was a notable proponent of mother and child welfare in Ireland. Nevertheless, her aristocratic status, shared with many of her peers in the ICW, may have alienated some of the more radical feminists of the time period.

Lady Aberdeen
Lady Aberdeen

The Paris Peace  Conference of 1919 was attended by the ICW and Lady Aberdeen, where they were described (rather unfairly) by Woodrow Wilson as representing the ‘mothers of the world’. They advocated the golden rule and used the opportunity to raise awareness of women’s rights, including the ongoing problem of trafficking and suffrage. They continued to attend League of Nations assemblies in the years that followed.

For the ICW’s Jubilee event in 1938, Edinburgh played host, perhaps in recognition of Lady Aberdeen’s efforts. The shadow of war loomed heavily over proceedings and the delegates recognised the ‘increasing gravity’ of world affairs. They continued the call for international cooperation, yet ominously the official German and Austrian delegation was prevented from attending.

Prof Abrams suggested that the viewpoint of Lady Aberdeen and the ICW was little more than ‘naive optimism’ against the growing threats in Europe, and their apparent suppression of nationhood may have been counter-productive. Commenting on the Jubilee event in The Scotsman, Marian McNeil, a folklorist, argued that there is little distinction between nationalism and internationalism, and observing that the delegates were the ‘flower’ of their own respective countries. She called for Scotland to renew her old contacts on the continent, in contrast to the ‘insular’ England.

At the ICW conference in Philadelphia in 1947, there were calls for an establishment of a new World Order:

The state’s true destiny [is] to build the bridge to world unity.

Again, the ICW advocated working with the establishment, in this case the UN, in order to change the exterior. It was hoped women would exert a moralising influence on patriarchal systems, which would, in time, lead to the extension of equal rights for women.

Lady Aberdeen and her peers were not discontent with the institution of the British state, nor did they align with the ‘feminist as a nomad’ idea. Instead, they sought to infiltrate the international stage with the goals of achieving unity and peace, and in the process they transcended the nation-state.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on Tuesday 1 April with Prof Alan Riach’s, ‘Scotland and New Zealand: poetry, fiction and the fact of the nation state’. This will continue the ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ mini-series and will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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