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


Malicious Mischief? National Records of Scotland Exhibition

For all of you interested in learning even more about the campaign for women’s suffrage in Scotland there is currently an exhibition on at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh entitled Malicious Mischief? – Scottish Suffragettes exhibition. It opened on the 1st of August and will end on the 31st of August. Catch it while you can!

The press release on the NRS website states that this is the first exhibition to bring together records of the suffragettes and the Scottish justice system for the first time, with records and evidence relating to protests and arrests, hunger strikes and force-feeding.

Some of the most active suffragettes in Scotland including Ethel Moorhead, Frances Gordon and Arabella Scott who all suffered force-feeding during imprisonment are featured. Private correspondence from activists is also included, along with letters, newspaper cuttings and trial papers.

This postcard was found at the scene of an attempted fire-raising in 6 Park Gardens, Glasgow. It was used in the trial as evidence against Ethel Moorhead and Dorothea Smith.

The exhibition is open Mondays to Fridays, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm

Accompanying the exhibition is a series of free talks which considers different aspects of the women’s suffrage movement. Details can be found on the NRS Events, Talks and Visits page.

Apologies that there are only two talks left:

22 August 2018, 2.00 – 3.00pm, New Register House
‘Building the New Jerusalem’: Religious Dimensions of Women’s Suffrage, Citizenship and Protest in Scotland

Dr Lesley Orr, University of Edinburgh
Book Online

Throughout the long campaign for women’s suffrage and broader feminist claims in Scotland, many of the movement’s leaders and activists were women of religious faith. They drew on their beliefs and values to make the case for equal rights and citizenship, and many became vocal critics of patriarchal Church traditions and practices in Presbyterian Scotland. Attempts were made to engage institutional church support for the Cause, and in 1912 a Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage was established. Reactionaries railed against ‘the unholy sisterhood’ while more progressive Presbyterian ministers extolled the potential virtues of enfranchised women. Both constitutionalist and particularly militant campaigners often experienced and articulated the campaign as a spiritual movement with a gendered vision of social transformation. And for some women, this was carried into the war years as a feminist commitment to pacifist war resistance.

Drawing on sources including material in the National Records of Scotland, this talk will explore some of the key people, events and tensions involved in the complex, many faceted religious dimensions of the suffrage movement in Scotland, with reference to contrasting women including Lady Frances Balfour and socialist militant activist Helen Crawfurd.

Lesley is a feminist historian and activist who has written about women and Presbyterianism, the Women’s Peace Crusade, and the history of Women’s Aid in Scotland.

30 August 2018, 11.00 – 12.00pm, General Register House
After Suffrage: Feminism in interwar Scotland

Dr Valerie Wright, Research Associate, Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow
Book Online

It is traditionally assumed that after the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918 the women’s movement in the UK became moribund. Nothing could be further from the truth. The campaign for equality continued with suffragists and suffragettes continuing to work in a variety of women’s organisations in campaigns to improve the lives of women of all backgrounds. New organisations were established which focused on ‘active citizenship’ and encouraged women to use their votes as well as demand an extension of the franchise to all women. One such organisation was the Edinburgh Women’s Citizens Association (EWCA), a non-party explicitly feminist organisation which supported female candidates in local and national elections. It was affiliated to the Scottish Council of Women’s Citizens Assocations (SCWCA), which had branches throughout Scotland. The records for both the EWCA and SCWCA are held in the National Records of Scotland. In this talk I will discuss how these archive materials can be used, along with other sources, to find out more about the campaigns and demands of feminists in interwar Scotland, with a focus on Edinburgh.

Dr Valerie Wright serves on the steering committee of Women’s History Scotland and is a co-author and curator of ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, 1867-1928: A learning Resource’ available at

1911 Census Protest in Scotland – Request for information

In ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland 1967-1928: A Learning Resource‘, we discuss the campaigns of both suffragist and suffragettes demanding the vote for women on the same terms as men.

Ruth Boreham is currently undertaking research into the protests made by women in Scotland in refusing to participate in the 1911 census. Read the following and if you have any information please get in touch with Ruth:

There has been much in the media of late about different ways that the suffragettes and suffragists campaigned for the vote in the run up to partial suffrage in 1918, mainly concentrating on the military action of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) lead by the Pankhursts. But many more ways were used to strengthen the voice of those who believed that women should be given the vote, and the census that was taken on the 2nd April 1911 was seen as a way of protesting against the government who were still refusing to grant them a vote, despite decades of campaigning. Women were urged to use the government’s own tool, the census, against them by various means, from spoiling papers, refusing to give information, or avoiding their usual abode.

Activist boycotting the census by defacing the form © National Archives


Dundee Suffragettes Resist the Census(Image The Dundee Courier, 3 April, 1911 as featued in

There has been much work done since 2009 on the 1911 census returns in England, but what happened in Scotland? Frustratingly the original returns were destroyed long ago, but I am currently looking at the enumerators returns, and other archival records, including letters and newspapers, to find out how widespread the protest was. There were those who wrote ‘suffragette’ as their occupation, those who came together for the night avoiding their usual place of abode, and those who refused to be recorded. I would love to hear if you have discovered any such records in your own research.

Do get in touch!

Suffrage in Dundee: WHS Suffrage Learning Resource launch event

On Saturday 10th of March as part of Dundee Women’s Festival Women’s History Scotland officially launched it’s new learning resource:


We were fortunate to have such welcoming and supporting hosts in Dundee’s Central Library in the Wellgate with Maureen Hood and her team providing display materials from ‘Voteless not Voiceless‘ an exhibition held in the library a few years ago.

Display materials from ‘Voteless not Voiceless’

The launch was very well attended and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for both the online learning resource and learning more about the history of the suffrage movement in Dundee. In fact it turns out that Dundee could not have been a better place to hold the launch given the richness of the existing history of women in the city.

Following a brief introduction on our motivations for creating the resource and a tour of what information it contained, Esther Breitenbach of the WHS steering committeee gave an overview of the suffrage movement in Scotland, emphasising the long-run nature of the campaign for enfranchisement in Scotland and the differing demands of various groups of women. Central to this is the difference between suffragists and suffragettes: Suffragists used peaceful constitutional methods to make their case that women should have the vote on the same terms on men, and suffragist groups included the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The suffragettes on the other hand advocated militant action and were largely members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Numerically there were far more suffragists than suffragettes and yet it is the suffragettes that live on in popular memory of the campaign for the vote. Esther also spoke of the early organisation of women in favour of the suffrage cause in Dundee and women’s involvement in political parties and activity in the city.

Mary Maloney disrupting churchill 6 May 1908
Mary Maloney disrupts Churchill, 6 May 1908 (Dundee City Archives)

Norman Watson, journalist and author of several books on women’s history in Dundee including the soon to be reissued Dundee’s Suffragettes: Their Remarkable Struggle to Win Votes for Women then spoke very authoritatively and engagingly on the activities of members of the WSPU and WFL in Dundee such as Ethel Moorehead, Lila Clunas and Agnes Husband. Drawing on his vast collection of postcards, suffrage memorabilia, not to mention extensive knowledge, we all learned a great deal about the reasons why there was comparatively more suffrage activity in Dundee. Central to this was the fact that the then Prime Minister’s constituency was in East Fife and Winston Churchill was standing Liberal MP for Dundee in 1908. At this point Churchill was a rising star in the party, President of the Board of Trade and would go on to be Home Secretary in 1910. As a result Dundee was a high profile constituency and thus a strategic target of suffragette militancy. One of the most famous disrupting strategy was taken by Mary Maloney a member of the WSPU who would ring a bell every time Churchill addressed a crowd in Dundee (see image above). Nearby Perth prison also became notorious as this was where suffragettes were sent to be force-fed in Scotland. The WSPU rented a flat across from the prison so that members could sing songs and chants of solidarity with those imprisoned.

If you would like a more in-depth account of Dundee’s suffragette history look out for the publication of Norman’s book later this year.

Tea and coffee in the conference room, Dundee Central Library

Following a tea and coffee break, with refreshments generously provided by Dundee Central Library, historian Kenneth Baxter gave a presentation on the political representation of women in Dundee, which from 1918 to c. 1955 lagged behind the other major cities in Scotland. Dundonians were slow to elect their first female Councillor and first female MP. It was interesting to hear more about the women who were elected, their careers and political priorities in the city. While there is no one definitive answer to explain the relative lack of female elected representatives in Dundee given the city’s reputation as a women’s town, we had a good discussion with many suggestions from those attending the event.

The official launch of the online learning resource was a great success and we are keen to hold similar events throughout Scotland. If you are part of a local history or community group and would like to know more about the suffrage movement in your area please get in touch by emailing:

Valerie Wright (University of Glasgow)

Coming Soon! Women’s History Scotland – Suffrage Learning Resource

Women’s History Scotland are currently working on the finishing touches of our new Suffrage Learning Resource which will be launched at Dundee Women’s Festival in March.


You can find further details in the beautifully illustrated programme – Dundee-Womens-Festival-Programme-20181 (p. 12) which also has many excellent events for all. There is genuinely something for everyone. Contact details available on the Dundee Women’s Festival Website.

The theme, given that this year is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, is ‘A Vote for the Future’. So it really is the perfect environment in which to launch our resource (more details of when the resource will go live will follow soon). The study of women’s history in Dundee is well established with Eleanor Gordon’s research on the women workers of the jute mills, Kenneth Baxter’s work on female politicians, Sarah Browne’s research on the Dundee Women’s Citizens Association, and Norman Watson’s work on Dundee women, among many others. And let’s not forget the excellent Dundee Women’s Trail!

On Saturday 10th of March, from 2-4pm in the Wellgate Library we will be thinking about the demands made by women in Dundee for equality both before and after the Representation of the People Act of 1918. We’ll be discussing constitutional suffrage as well as the militancy of the suffragettes. Also we’ll be thinking about the role of political parties and the implications of the vote in Dundee in terms of women’s political involvement.

Practical advice on how to find out more about women’s history in Dundee will be provided along with examples of useful source material.

(Image The Dundee Courier, 3 April, 1911 as featued in

To register for FREE visit the event page on eventbrite.