The Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage: getting women elected to School Boards and Parish Council

In this post, based on a talk given at the Old Edinburgh Club, Esther Breitenbach explores the women elected to School Boards and the Parish Council in Edinburgh. 

Although women did not get the parliamentary franchise till 1918, partially, and then on equal terms with men until 1928, some women had the right to vote and stand for office at local level long before that. From 1872, some women were eligible to vote and stand for School Boards, and from 1881/1882, some were eligible to vote and stand for Parochial Boards, and later for Parish Councils, which were created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894. Also in 1881/1882 women ratepayers were given the right to vote in town council elections, and in 1889 women ratepayers were given the right to vote in county council elections. In 1907 women were given the right to stand for town and county council elections. The qualifications for voting and for standing for these different bodies were not uniform, and the complex qualifying conditions are not discussed here. Suffice it to say here that they limited eligibility to women of the middle and upper classes, and often also excluded married women.

Research carried out for a recent talk to the Old Edinburgh Club has established that the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage (ENSWS) also organised to ensure women’s representation at local level. School Boards were created by the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, and the first elections took place in 1873. The ENSWS set up a committee to support ‘Lady Candidates’ in February 1873, chaired by Professor David Masson. Agnes McLaren, Eliza Wigham and Louisa Stevenson, of the ENSWS were on the executive of the committee supporting Lady Candidates. Their candidates were Phoebe Blyth and Flora Stevenson, who were duly elected. Flora Stevenson served on the Board until her death in 1905, and was Chair of the Board from 1901. The committee for promoting lady candidates was active until at least the early 1890s, by which time women’s presence on the Board was well established. Between 1873 and 1918, fifteen women served on the Edinburgh School Board, with there being two or three women on each Board, out of a total Board membership of fifteen.

Agnes McLaren, Flora Stevenson, Eliza Wigham

The ENSWS similarly took action to ensure women were represented on Parochial Boards, following their obtaining the municipal franchise in 1881/1882 (there appears to have been separate legislation for town council and for police burgh elections). Parochial Boards administered the Poor Law, including outdoor relief to the poor, poorhouses, and medical relief. In March 1883, a committee was formed to promote ‘Lady Candidates’, with Eliza Wigham as convener. The first candidates put forward were Louisa Stevenson and Jane Miller, for St Cuthbert’s Parochial Board, and they were duly elected. Until 1894 when the City of Edinburgh Parish Council was formed, there were women members on the St Cuthbert’s Combination Parochial Board and on the City of Edinburgh Parochial Board. After 1894, there were usually around six women on the Edinburgh Parish Council. Between 1885 and 1920 there were thirty four women who served on Parochial Boards and Parish Councils, some of them very long-standing members, such as Mary Carr Lees who served for more than 25 years, and later became a Justice of the Peace. The committee for promoting Lady Candidates continued to function until 1895, when it was dissolved, being judged to have succeeded in its purpose.


Councillor Ella Morison Millar in the 1940s. From collection held in Edinburgh City Archives.

It was not until 1920 that Edinburgh got its first women town councillors, Mrs Ella Morison Millar and Mrs Euphemia Somerville, both of whom were members of the Edinburgh Women Citizens Association, and who were supported by the EWCA in their election campaigns. However, in 1907, the first town council election for which women were eligible to stand, Lady Steel stood for the council, but was unsuccessful. Barbara Steel, widow of Lord Provost James Steel, was a member of both the Scottish Women’s Liberal Federation and the Edinburgh Suffrage Society, and had adopted the tactic of tax resistance, on the grounds that there should be no taxation without representation. A a result of her refusal to pay tax, she had her furniture seized and sold at auction. She had the support of the ENSWS in doing this, but it is possible that the stand she had taken over women’s suffrage contributed to her defeat in the town council election.

The brief account given here is based on research that is still in progress. The position of women on school boards has already received some attention from historians, but the role of women on parochial boards and parish councils has had little investigation. It is likely that women played a role on these in other Scottish cities and towns. The sources used to identify women holding local public office were the Edinburgh Almanac, and the Post Office Edinburgh and Leith Directories. These publications did not list the committees supporting Lady Candidates, however, and information about the committees has been derived from online searches of the Historical Scotsman. A number of the women who held public office in Edinburgh have entries in The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, but by no means all. Thus there remains much scope for uncovering the wider role of women in public life from the later decades of the nineteenth century onwards.

Further reading

Bain, Andrew,  ‘The Beginnings of Democratic Control of Local Education in Scotland’, Scottish Economic and Social History, 23:1 (2003), pp. 7-25.

McDermid, Jane, ‘Blurring the Boundaries: school board women in Scotland, 1873-1919’, Women’s History Review, 19:3 (2010), pp. 357-373.

Jane McDermid, ‘”Place the Book in their Hands”: Grace Paterson’s Contribution to the Health and Welfare Policies of the School Board of Glasgow, 1885-1906’, History of Education, 36:6 (2007), pp. 697-713.

Ewan, Elizabeth, Rose Pipes, Jane Rendall and Sian Reynolds (eds), The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2018)

Esther Breitenbach, University of Edinburgh, November 2018


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s