The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland: the early years

DOWNLOAD – WHS Suffrage Scotland – Early years

Esther Breitenbach

 In this section you will find information on the following:


  • The formation and early years of the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first women’s suffrage society established in Scotland

  • How the campaign was publicised in public meetings and speaking tours round Scotland
  • How women took up public office on school boards and lobbied for the right to sit on local councils
  • Who supported the demand for women’s suffrage.


Organised campaigning for the parliamentary franchise for women was initiated in 1867, the year that John Stuart Mill MP proposed an amendment to the parliamentary Reform Act, that would subsitute the word ‘person’ for men, and therefore include women. The amendment was defeated, and in the wake of this defeat several women’s suffrage societies were formed ‘almost simultaneously’, according to Millicent Fawcett, writing in 1912. These were in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Birmingham.

The Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage (ENSWS)

Eliza Wigham
Eliza Wigham, Woman at Home, 1895

Edinburgh was thus the first women’s suffrage society to be formed in Scotland, the ‘National’ in its title indicating its links to other branches in Britain. Some campaigning had already taken place as the Reform Act was being debated in Parliament: this had included signing a petition in 1866, and some women attempting to register as voters. By 1868, the year the Reform Act (Scotland) was passed, the Edinburgh Society had written to all Scottish MPs asking for support for the inclusion of duly qualified women in any extension of the franchise. ‘Duly qualified’ meant having the relevant property qualification in their own right. The argument was that women should have the vote on the same basis as men then did, and that there should be no taxation without representation. The first demand for the vote was thus for women ratepayers to be given equal treatment with their male counterparts. Edinburgh MP Duncan McLaren presented one such petition in 1867. In 1868, many other Scottish towns presented petitions supporting this demand: Aberdeen, Dumfries, Montrose, Arbroath, Lerwick, North Berwick, Haddington, Galashiels, Hawick, Peebles, Innerleithen, Selkirk, Biggar, Wigtown, Lanark, Kirkwall, Jedburgh, Golspie, Thurso, Wick, Invergordon, Stromness, Paisley, Helensburgh, Elgin, Inverness, Nairn, and Banff.

At the core of the Edinburgh Society were several women who were already seasoned campaigners, having been involved in the anti-slavery movement in organisations such as the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society. They included Priscilla Bright McLaren, married to Duncan McLaren, MP, and Agnes McLaren, daughter of Duncan, and step-daughter of Priscilla. Quaker activist Eliza Wigham was also one of the Society’s founder members. Shortly afterwards they were joined by Flora and Louisa Stevenson; the former was to go on to have a prominent career in education, and was the first woman member of the Edinburgh School Board, while the latter was a leading activist in the campaign for women’s access to higher education. The newly formed committee of the Edinburgh Society had around twenty members, all women. However, they worked closely with male supporters, as indeed they had to in order to have petitions presented to parliament by MPs and councillors. As well as already having campaigning experience to draw on, they were well networked with Liberal political circles both in Edinburgh and in London.

Public meetings

In 1867, an editorial in The Scotsman discussed Mill’s proposal for the enfranchisement of women and arguments for and against, concluding, that although there was no theoretical reason to be against the enfranchisement of women, ‘feeling’, or ‘prejudice it may be – revolts from it.’ It added that most women did not want the vote, and that they could not be made to do so. As the ENSWS stepped up its public campaigning, however, The Scotsman began taking note of its activities, reporting on the public meeting they were planning for the second week of January, 1870. The meeting was subsequently given extensive coverage; chaired by Duncan McLaren, it was filled to overflowing, with many women present. The audience was addressed by Priscilla McLaren’s brother, Jacob Bright MP, who was putting forward a Bill on Electoral Disabilities, which aimed to enfranchise women. The annual report of the Society was read to the meeting by Professor Calderwood: among other things this noted that 239 women householders and ratepayers in Edinburgh and a number in Wigtown and other places had also sent in claims to be registered as voters under the new Reform Act, while in Aberdeen all women householders had been placed ‘by the association’ on the electoral roll. However, the claims had been tried and ultimately rejected.

The following year, on 12 January, John Stuart Mill addressed a further public meeting in Edinburgh. The Music Hall was filled, with many women present, and ‘a goodly array of ladies connected with the Edinburgh branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage’ shared the platform with their leading male supporters. Duncan McLaren, MP, who was in the chair, pointed out that it had been the ‘Ladies Committee, who had had the whole management’ of the event. Mill challenged the view that men were protectors of women and looked after their interests, made the argument that there should be no taxation without representation, argued that if women were given the same rights as men the same obligations would follow, and that giving women political rights would make use of brain power now wasted, and powers of organisation already proved. At this meeting Eliza Wigham read the Society’s Report, ‘instead of asking a man to do it, as had been customary.’

Speaking tours

The Edinburgh Society was also associated with speaking tours of Scotland. In 1870, Jane Taylour, who lived in Stranraer, embarked on a tour round south and central Scotland, often accompanied by Edinburgh Society member, Mary Burton. Taylour conducted further speaking tours in 1871, including a tour of the Highlands, jointly with Agnes McLaren, in the autumn of that year. London-based speakers such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker also gave lectures in Scotland. In early 1872 Jane Taylour undertook a further tour, while Jessie Craigen (a London-based actress) conducted a separate speaking tour in the same year. Later tours by Craigen in 1874 and 1875 included working-class audiences, for example, at Kilbarchan and Stenhousemuir.

A lecture given by Jane Taylour in Edinburgh in 1873 illustrates the kind of arguments that were put forward for the franchise for women in the early years of the movement: the argument of simple justice; the evidence that women had voted in a greater proportion than men in the English municipal elections of the previous year, and had also voted in School Board elections; the franchise, attached to property, constitutionally should include women as taxpayers; the argument of lack of education did not prevent illiterate men from having the vote, and in any case the franchise was based on property; women, in a country ruled by a queen, should not be prohibited from public life; religious objections depended on narrow interpretations of Christian principles. Taylour’s lecture was followed by a resolution which emphasised that taxation was the basis of representation.

Agnes McLaren and Jane Taylour
Agnes McLaren and Jane Taylour, from Helen Blackburn, Women’s Suffrage (1902)

A leaflet published by the ENSWS around 1871 noted the extent of activity in supporting Jacob Bright’s Bill, which was


‘largely supported by numerous and influential Public Meetings throughout the country,’ 60 having been held in Scotland alone during the previous year. In addition to these, 619 Petitions, with 186,000

signatures, had been presented to the House of Commons, of which 268 were sent from Scotland, including 10 from the Town Councils of the most important Cities and Burghs.

The leaflet went on to say that ‘the Committee intend to promote Public Meetings throughout Scotland.’ It also listed twenty-six ‘Scotch Committees’ that had already been formed, ranging from Dumfries and Galloway to Thurso and Wick. The speaking tours were often instrumental in the formation of committees.

School boards

Although the attempt to obtain the parliamentary franchise for qualified women in 1867/1868 had failed, the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act permitted women to vote and stand for the newly created School Boards, and this was therefore to become the first type of elected office that women were able to hold. Eligibility was based on the valuation roll and included only those who were owners or occupiers of lands or houses at £4 annual value.

The first elections for School Boards in Scotland took place in 1873. There were around 890 Boards in Scotland, and it was reported at the ENSWS annual meeting in 1874, that eighteen women in total were returned across the country (Edinburgh Evening News, 25 February, 1874). Two of these women were Flora Stevenson in Edinburgh, and Jane Arthur in Paisley, both to become long-serving members on these respective boards. For feminist campaigners, the right to vote for School Boards was linked to the right to the Parliamentary Franchise. Flora Masson, writing on ‘The Parliamentary Franchise for Women’ in The Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine in 1876, emphasised women’s right to vote for School Boards. Women, she wrote,

are allowed to vote in both England and Scotland at School Board elections; and in none of these cases have evil results been seen. No ugly transformation has occurred among the women of Edinburgh since three years ago, when they went up in large numbers to the polling-booths and voted for members of the School Boards.

Furthermore, she noted that in 1875 half of Scottish MPs were pledged in favour of Women’s Suffrage, and that sixteen Scotch Town Councils had presented petitions to Disraeli [then Prime Minister], among them Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dumfries, Dunbar, Forfar, Cupar, Galashiels, Hawick, and Jedburgh.

The presence of women on school boards varied considerably over the next few decades, with the cities tending to have more women members, although there were other areas, such as Fife, where women’s representation was relatively high. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, there were Associations for Promoting Lady Candidates at School Board and Parochial Elections, which included male supporters as well as women members, and there may have been similar associations in other areas. It remains a matter for investigation to what extent Women’s Suffrage societies actively supported women’s candidacies; some women members were explicitly feminist, others may have been more philanthropically minded, although these motivations were not mutually exclusive. By 1906 there were seventy-six women members of School Boards, and as more elected offices opened up to women at municipal level, some women made the transition from School Board to town and county councils.

The spread of the movement across Scotland

Edinburgh Evening News
Edinburgh Evening News, 25 February 1874

The accounts and publications quoted here indicate that organised support for women’s suffrage, albeit limited to women householders and ratepayers, had expanded rapidly across Scotland after the first attempt to have women included in the franchise in 1867. The Edinburgh Society had been active in promoting its message throughout Scotland, and many local societies were formed in response to speaking tours. The result of the campaigning and public meetings was that by the early 1870s committees had been formed in many parts of the country. The ENSWS annual meeting of 1874 reported that there were 62 such committees across Scotland (Edinburgh Evening News, 25 February, 1874). Details of committee membership provided in an ENSWS leaflet (c. 1871) indicate that in a number of places the secretaries or office bearers of committees were male supporters, often leading members of local councils.

The argument that women had already gained some rights to elected office was used to advance the demand for the parliamentary franchise. At the annual meeting of the ENSWS in 1878, as reported in The Scotsman (16 March, 1878), the chairman, David Dickson, commented that

‘The principle of woman suffrage had … been admitted in England by the granting to them of the municipal franchise, and in Scotland by conferring the Parochial Board and School Board suffrage. The experience of the exercise of these franchises was that they had been for the benefit of society.’

At the same meeting it was noted that 183 petitions had been sent from Scotland in anticipation of Jacob Bright’s Bill of 1877. These included petitions from Edinburgh, from members of the Faculty of Advocates, physicians, surgeons and doctors, ministers, publishers and printers, rectors, schoolmasters and teachers, women householders and ratepayers. There were also eleven petitions from town councils, and eighty-seven from country towns. Support had thus been garnered among MPs, and from burghs and town councils, as well as from particular social and professional groupings. In the first ten years the movement had made considerable progress, but many of the local organisations established in this period may not have been sustained over the longer term, perhaps reviving at a later stage of the campaign. As yet the history of the women’s suffrage movement in Scotland remains far from comprehensive; the histories of local societies and action are needed to fill the gaps.


Primary sources

Edinburgh Branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, Object: – To recover for Women Householders, or Owners of Property, the ancient right of Voting for Members of Parliament (no date, c. 1871) [National Library of Scotland: PB6.216.118/1]

Great Meeting in Edinburgh in The Music Hall on 12th January, 1871, under the Auspices of the Edinburgh Branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (Edinburgh: John Greig & Son, 1871). [Meeting addressed by John Stuart Mill]

Flora Masson, ‘Woman’s Work: VII The Parliamentary Franchise for Women’, Ladies Edinburgh Magazine, Vol 2 (1876), pp. 97-102. NLS:

Interview with Eliza Wigham by Sarah Tooley, ‘Ladies of Edinburgh’, Woman at Home (1895)

Millicent Fawcett, Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (1912)

Scotsman, 11 March, 1867; 8 December, 1869; 18 January, 1870; 13 January, 1871; 18 November, 1873; 16 March, 1878.

Edinburgh Evening News, 25 February, 1874.



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

Crawford, Elizabeth, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland:A Regional Survey (2006)

Ewan, Elizabeth, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh, 2006) [See for entries on the women mentioned in this section, with the exception of Jessie Craigen]

Holton, Sandra Stanley, ‘Silk dresses and lavender kid gloves: the wayward career of Jessie Craigen, working suffragist’ in Women’s History Review, 5(1) (1996), pp. 129-150.

King, Elspeth, ‘The Scottish Women’s Suffrage Movement’ in Esther Breitenbach and Eleanor Gordon (eds), Out of Bounds: Women in Scottish Society, 1800-1945 (Edinburgh, 1992), pp. 121-150.

Leneman, Leah, A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen, 1991)

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


Where can you find information about the Edinburgh society?

Edinburgh records

The records left behind by the Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage in the form of annual reports, pamphlets or occasional publications are remarkably few, and most of them are held at the Women’s Library [formerly Fawcett Library], now at the London School of Economics. The City of Manchester Library hold an annual report for 1892.

The National Library of Scotland [NLS] holds in addition to the sources listed above:

Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage, Report of Committee (1907)

It also has digitised resources at:

The Attempt, The Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine.

The Edinburgh Room, Edinburgh Central Library, holds the following:

Edinburgh National Society for Women’s Suffrage, Annual Meeting held 15th March, 1901. Thirtieth Annual Report. ([AS442] Y JN 985.)

Illuminated address presented to Dame Elizabeth Siddons Mair, 1919. ([C7840] qYDA 1820 M22.)


Where can you find information about local societies elsewhere?

You can search the Scottish Archives Network (SCAN) catalogue, consult local newspapers, local archives, council archives, local museums, etc.  You can also consult suffrage journals. For more details, see the General Guidance on sources, especially the sections on ‘Records of women’s organisations’ and ‘Journals and newspapers.’


Questions for investigation

  • Was there a suffrage society in your area in the early years of the campaign?
  • If so, who were the leading members?
  • Were there public meetings as part of the suffrage campaigners’ speaking tours in your area?
  • Who were the speakers, and what were their key arguments?
  • Did women stand for school boards in your area after the 1872 Education Act?


Women’s History Scotland exists to promote study and research in women’s and gender history, particularly for those working in Scotland or working on Scottish themes. It has a commitment to history at all levels and aims to provide a network of information and support to all. Browse our website for news of activities and projects concerning women’s and gender history in Scotland.


Esther Breitenbach

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