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The Feminine Public SphereMiddle-Class Women in Civic Life in Scotland, C.1870–1914$

Megan Smitley

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719079665

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719079665.001.0001

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The feminine public sphere

The feminine public sphere

(p.40) 2 The feminine public sphere
The Feminine Public Sphere

Megan Smitley

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a brief overview of feminine public sphere by qualitative and quantitative evidence indicating that religious conviction and middle-class networks dominated the culture of Scotland's well-to-do public women. Christian faith appears as a key factor in middle-class women's determination to pursue a public life, while religious networks provided material and spiritual support for women's public work. The feminine public sphere represents more than an arena for middle-class women's reforming activities, and it is best understood as a site of middle-class women's contribution to middle-class identity. In addition, civic participation was a hallmark of middle-class culture in the 1870 to 1914 period. Affluent men enjoyed access to a range of formalised power structures at the local and national levels, and while women's route into civic life was largely through the informal power structures of their reforming organisations, their contributions to a middle-class culture of civic participation should be considered no less significant. Female associational life may have paralleled the structure and tenor of men's organisations, yet middle-class women's internalisation of supposed feminine moral superiority encouraged a desire to feminise middle-class public life. Thus, by contravening idealised notions of a sequestered femininity, middle-class public women sought to remould society in their own righteous image.

Keywords:   feminine public sphere, internalisation, righteous image, Christian faith

The feminine public sphere represents the discourses and activities that middle-class female activists used to pursue their socio-political reforming goals. Between 1870 and 1914, suffragists, female temperance reformers and Liberal women in central, urban Scotland entered public discourse to legitimise middle-class women’s work in the public sphere. The SWTN, WSJ and the SLWM indicate the type of arguments middle-class women employed to justify their public roles. Separate spheres was a central discursive notion in the 1870 to 1914 period, yet middle-class women generated heterodox analyses of restrictive gender ideologies by interpreting the intersecting class and religious discourses that cut across separate spheres to accommodate, ideologically, a feminine public sphere. Women’s heterodox representations of religiously inspired gender ideologies such as ‘complementary natures’, formed the ideological bedrock of the feminine public sphere. The feminine public sphere was further founded on middle-class women’s social networks, and an historical database of membership to Edinburgh organisations indicates the importance of neighbourhood, religious and kinship networks for middle-class women’s public lives. Neighbourhood networks, or local concentrations of an organisations’ members, point to women’s adaptation of middle-class sociability to meeting their reforming goals in the wider community. Equally, religious networks could provide material resources as well as moral support for women’s public projects at home and abroad. Kinship networks were also crucial for middle-class women’s reforming activities, and while male kin might provide access to formal power structures female kin were vital for introducing younger women to a lifetime of service in reforming movements.

Nineteenth-century ideologues argued that men and women manifested divinely appointed ‘complementary’ talents and abilities, and the ideology of ‘complementary natures’ could be used to justify the (p.41) sexual division of labour and women’s social, economic and political inequality. ‘Complementary natures’ ideology encouraged the notion of a ‘woman’s mission’, or a set of special duties and tasks that were associated with women’s complementary role: ‘Woman’s mission, as we take it, is to redeem man, and so redeem herself.’1 ‘Complementary natures’ and ‘woman’s mission’ were tightly bound up with evangelical thought and emphases on Christian mothers’ moral instruction of children and husbands.2 While ‘complementary natures’ ideology could be construed as a mandate for female passivity and seclusion within the home, it is apparent from women’s periodicals that middle-class women represented both the evangelical duty to proselytise and ‘woman’s mission’ to morally purify society as invitations to public life.

The tensions between a conservative religious morality and the use of religious thought to justify a feminine public sphere suggests the need to include Christian women in an understanding of ‘first-wave’ feminism. Sue Morgan’s analysis of Ellice Hopkins offers the term ‘religio-feminism’ to argue that Christian feminists must be analysed in context of their faith.3 Similarly, Lesley A. Orr MacDonald has argued that evangelical notions of the individual’s duty to work for the salvation of others and of feminine moral superiority resulted a ‘distinct ministry’ for women.4 While noting that a reliance on ‘complementary natures’ ideology could circumscribe gender roles, Eileen Janes Yeo has suggested that, ‘on the intellectual level, religion can provide a belief system which is culturally powerful at a particular historical moment and yet which can be manipulated to shape gender identities different from the conventional models, legitimising them with transcendent authority’.5 It is argued here that while religious thought might ultimately confine women to particular roles, Christian belief and fellowship were important resources underpinning women’s discursive defence of and their reforming activities within the feminine public sphere.

A ‘complementary’ public sphere

The women of this study tended to support a heterodox interpretation of ‘complementary natures’ ideology, in order to carve out a place for women’s public lives. These arguments could suggest that more affluent women were better equipped than their male peers for benevolent work among poorer women and children. The idea that middle-class women had a special niche in public life was used by a range of organisations in support of women’s reforming activities: the SWLF might use ‘complementary natures’ to argue for women’s distinct and valuable contribution to political (p.42) life, while the BWTASCU might deploy this ideology to show women’s peculiar capacity for work with female drinkers. Gender ideology also influenced the day-to-day running of the organisations studied here, and members further subverted idealised gender roles by adapting their domestic spaces to reforming activism. This is particularly evident from the practice of drawing-room meetings. In contrast to public meetings, where an organisation might publicise its yearly achievements to an audience beyond its membership, drawing-room meetings were more intimate gatherings in members’ private homes. Reforming organisations’ use of drawing-room meetings demonstrates how public women might overcome gendered disadvantages, such as a lack of funding for dedicated meeting rooms, in order to pursue their reforming activities. Indeed, the practice of drawing-room meetings suggests that the domestic sphere, a central site of middle-class sociability, was important for cultivating the neighbourhood networks that strengthened women’s reforming activities outside the home.

The SLWM tended to describe women’s public role as a separate and feminine public service to disadvantaged women and children, rather than as a challenge to free and equal access to all areas of public life. In an account of Mrs Edwin Gray’s speech at a 1909 meeting, the SLWM maintained that women’s participation in public life could not destroy the separateness of the sexes: ‘Just as women’s work in the home is different from men’s work in the home, so will be their work in and for the State; and neither the higher education, or the taking part in public affairs, nor anything else, will ever do away with the distinctive qualifications and attributes of women, which have hitherto been useful and pleasing to men.’6 Similarly, in her remembrance of the 1912 annual meeting at Dundee, Mrs Latta argued that women’s special insight into problems facing poorer women suggested a distinct role for women in public life, ‘at almost every moment a new point of interest appeared, or another delegate was met with, full of some special interest upon which she, by careful observation and experience was not only an authority but a representative of those in whose welfare she was so deeply interested’.7 In this way, readers were assured that public participation would not dissolve the ‘natural’ and harmonious differences between men and women. While this representation of the feminine public sphere is problematic and any emancipatory connotations are undercut by an acknowledgement of essentialist ideas of women’s role, Liberal women such as Lady Mary Murray, Western Vice-President (1892–1900), defended the different, yet equally valuable, role of women: ‘She recalled the leader in The Scotsman twenty years ago, which had spoken of their meeting as “the hen parliament”, but she did not think (p.43) that type of comment would be applied to-day. They were too important for that now.’8 Of course, the usefulness and importance of the SWLF in the eyes of male Liberals may have related largely to the voluntary labour of the WLAs during elections, yet for female Liberals it most certainly provided evidence of their own distinctive, or complementary, contribution to public life.

For the British Women, the concept of ‘complementary natures’ was central to discussions of women’s obligation to save Scottish women from drunkenness, the BWTASCU having claimed in its first volume of the SWTN the organisation’s mission as, ‘the protection of Scottish women from strong drink’.9 Certainly, the wider temperance press stressed female temperance reformers’ special duty to work among female drinkers, an attitude that was expressed in the League, the official periodical of the male-dominated, mixed-sex Scottish Temperance League (STL): ‘[the BWTASCU] was needed to give symmetry and completeness to the general movement. There are some kinds of temperance work for which women of tact and grace are better fitted than men.’10 The evidence suggests that the British Women legitimated their public role, in part, by highlighting women’s supposedly natural ability to work with female drinkers; the BWTASCU had used the spectre of ‘the female inebriate’ as a rallying cry from its early days in the 1880s: ‘So long as there was one woman a victim to intemperance it was the bounden duty of every woman, who looked the question fair in the face, to do everything in her power to redeem her sisters from so awful a fate as that which drunkenness brought upon them.’11 For the BWTASCU’s reform programme this emphasis on the female drinker, as later chapters will show, encouraged the formation of female inebriate homes and departments dedicated to ‘rescuing’ women held in prison for drink-related offences.

The British Women’s emphasis on female drinkers responded to debates on ‘national efficiency’, or the ability of the working classes to reproduce a racially and morally sound population. Marianna Valverde has shown that the fate of the nation was understood as tied to mothers’ temperate influence; ‘the drink issue was … articulated in powerful and coercive ways with the more broadly based panic about race degeneration and female / maternal duties’.12 The idea that mothers had the greatest responsibility for ensuring the quality of the ‘race’ had a long pedigree, and temperance reformers had feared the impact of drink on motherhood from the middle of the century. A fear of racial deterioration through mothers’ drunkenness was apparent in the records of the BWTASCU throughout the period examined here. For instance, the 1886 minutes of the Glasgow Prayer Union recall: ‘Prayer offered for (p.44) several special cases. One in particular described by a lady of a woman she found lying very drunk, near Cattle Market with young infant. The lady was afraid the young infant would be killed and took it to the Police Office, where the woman was also taken.’13 Similarly, in 1907, Mrs Milne, a member of the Edinburgh Central Branch and Superintendent of the Parliamentary Department (1901–14), wrote in the Scottish Temperance Annual: ‘drinking among women is a portentous fact, and constitutes a great national danger. The recent sad revelations in some districts in Edinburgh of the seamy side of life, and which is but a sample of what is to be found in all our cities, may well stir us to new endeavour.’14 While the BWTASCU’s understandings of ‘national efficiency’ and women’s complementary role to labour among female drinkers worked to justify their unique and necessary role in public life, British Women’s emphasis on reform of ‘the female inebriate’ should not be viewed purely as a calculated subversion of gender ideology. Female temperance reformers were motivated by a deep and sincere religious commitment, and it is clear from these examples that work in temperance reform created opportunities for reforming women to witness first-hand the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse on poorer women. While such reports were likely to shock British Women and to encourage fears over poorer women’s ability to maintain the ‘race’, they might equally be expected to stir temperance reformers to action as compassionate human beings who believed in the middle classes’ duty to public service. Ultimately, the British Women’s internalisation of the notion of a complementary, feminine public role predicated on women’s biological and familial role as mothers allowed female temperance reformers to claim responsibility for female drinkers, and to consequently negotiate a place in public life. Female temperance reformers and other reforming women further adapted domestic space, the domain most strongly associated with femininity in Victorian and Edwardian gender ideology, to their goals in the public sphere.

The widespread practise of drawing-room meetings provides some of the clearest evidence for the permeability of domestic and public spaces. Juliet Kinchin’s study of the drawing-room helps to highlight the ‘public’ nature of the drawing-room, while Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair have cited evidence from the Claremont estate area of Glasgow to argue for the home as a centre of middle-class entertainment.15 The drawing-room was an important site of women’s sociability and while a centre of middle-class entertaining, the drawing-room might equally be employed as a key site of middle-class women’s political and social activism. This is clear from the the formation of departments by the Edinburgh Central Branch and Glasgow Prayer Union to oversee drawing-room meetings (p.45) as well as the WSJ’s regular references to drawing-room meetings organised in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Public women’s gatherings in drawing-rooms were also a practical solution to providing a meeting space for small, modestly funded and newly established women’s organisations, such as the SFWSS Kilmarnock Branch, which often met in members’ homes until a committee room was secured in late 1913: ‘By kind invitation of Mrs Brown the committee met at Roseland Kilmans for tea in the garden and afterwards the meeting was held indoors.’16

Suffrage and temperance periodicals often distinguish between public and drawing-room meetings. While public meetings were opportunities to communicate an organisation’s reforming goals and progress to a general audience, it seems that drawing-room meetings were more important for intimate discussions of organisational interests as well as for recruitment. Smith-Rosenburg’s seminal work on female rituals emphasised the importance of the domestic space for women’s social lives.17 It seems that the drawing-room, a central site of middle-class women’s sociability, was used to bring together well-to-do women and encourage their reforming activism. This idea was articulated at the BWTASCU’s 1882 annual meeting, where Mrs Robertson reportedly urged, ‘they should hold drawing-room meetings, so that their principles might be brought in an attractive form before persons unacquainted with or indifferent about them’.18 Thus, within this demonstrably ‘feminine’ space, where a family’s wealth was displayed through consumption and decoration, reforming women gathered to organise and to promote their work.

Middle-class women’s domestic spaces were further fundamental to the feminine public sphere as a place around which women’s neighbourhood networks might coalesce. Neighbourhood networks, or localised concentrations of membership to an organisation, emerge from an analysis of members’ addresses. In many cases the evidence is more strongly implied than absolute, yet the records strongly indicate the existence of these networks. For instance, Mrs McIntosh of 29 Hartington Place joined the BWTASCU in 1895, while Mrs Heron of 7 Hartington Gardens joined the following year. Hartington Place and Hartington Gardens are adjacent and parallel in the Merchiston area of Edinburgh, and it seems likely that Heron was recruited into the BWTASCU through an acquaintance with McIntosh. Whether or not this is an accurate assumption in this particular case is not of central importance, and similar patterns in the dataset suggest that women recruited their neighbours for reform. For example, incidences of women living in the same street, and working for the same organisation at similar times: Mrs Inglis from 12 Dick Place in the Grange area of Edinburgh was a member of the BWTASCU roughly (p.46) between 1888 and 1898 whereas her neighbour at number 44, Mrs Jackson, was a member between approximately 1889 and 1902.

Women’s neighbourhood networks were facilitated by the emergence of middle-class suburbs, such as Newington estate in Edinburgh. Newington House, the locus of Newington estate, was built by the wealthy surgeon Dr Benjamin Bell in 1805, and was purchased in 1808 by Sir George Stewart who began the process of gating off the area from the wider community.19 During the first half of the nineteenth century, Newington became the most densely populated suburb of Edinburgh as new land and building opportunities attracted the well-to-do, and improvements in transport linked the southern suburbs with the city centre and New Town. This process was further facilitated by Duncan McLaren’s purchase of Newington House in 1852. By acquiring neighbouring farmlands for residential development the well-known Liberal MP and husband of prominent suffragist Priscilla Bright McLaren is credited with having a profound impact on the movement of the middle classes into the area.20 Morningside went through a similar process of settlement as local farmlands were sub-divided into large plots and trams and railways brought wealthy settlers. This movement of the wealthy into their own neighbourhoods marked a shift in the demography of Edinburgh. Where previously tenements, ‘had accommodated a good social mix, with the aristocracy, the professions, merchants and working men all living together on different floors of the same tenement. The departure of the well-to-do to the New Town left the working class in flats, which quickly became overcrowded as they were sub-divided.’21 Middle-class residents increasingly sought to guard their neighbourhoods, and, for instance, where Newington, Mayfield and the Grange bordered less prestigious sections of town, gates were constructed to protect oases of affluence.22 Residential segregation was not isolated to Edinburgh, and historians have shown that geographical separation demarcated by social classes was a prominent feature of late nineteenth-century cities.23 It was within these more exclusive neighbourhoods that middle-class women’s collective aspirations were facilitated by daily life within a fairly homogeneous social mix.

The reforming women of this study were likely to defend women’s public lives as a facet of women’s ‘complementary nature’. In their organisations’ periodicals middle-class public women subverted orthodox gender ideology to suggest women’s special qualifications for public life, and so forged a discursive space for the feminine public sphere. Moreover, home-based networks drew on middle-class patterns of sociability to recruit women for reform, as the domestic sphere and its local (p.47) environment were mobilised to serve the needs of women’s reform organisations. While reworking the implications of ‘complementary natures’ for women’s public lives, the reforming women of this study tended to accept the premise of a divinely appointed separation of the sexes. Indeed, their arguments for women’s public lives were strongly informed by notions of Christian service. Similarly, networks of faithful appear as important for women’s public careers as those of locality.

Christian service and religious networks

Middle-class women’s arguments for women’s access to public life were informed by a deep religious commitment, and the SWTN and the WSJ demonstrate that middle-class women considered public life a Christian duty. The opportunities presented by female temperance reform for women’s public Christian service were important ones; the rise of the women’s temperance movement opened up an influential Christian role at a time when Protestant women in Scotland were excluded from the pulpit. Similarly, suffragists’ writings sought to highlight the power of women’s voting to infuse legislation with women’s supposedly keener sense of Christian righteousness.

For female temperance reformers, a belief in feminine moral superiority was emboldened by the ascendancy of the international women’s temperance movement:

Every moment having as its aim the making of earth more like heaven, man more like God, has been much indebted to woman’s labours, woman’s faith, and woman’s prayers. This is specially true of the present age, when woman’s worth and power are being more and more realised. But for woman’s heroic courage, earnest pleading, gentle persuasion, sympathetic – frequently bitterest – tears, Heaven-inspired temperance movement would not occupy the advanced position which it now does.24

Over a decade later, Mrs Barton, a member of the SWLF from 1900 to 1913, suggested in her memoir of an Australian and New Zealand tour: ‘It is a true saying “The path of a good woman is strewn with flowers.” But the flowers lie behind, not in front. To make a clean sweet path should be the desire of all true women for those who follow after her.’25 When thanking the BWTASCU for her election as president in 1906, Miss Catherine Forrester Paton indicated an understanding of her public life as a Christian ministry:

I gratefully thank you for the honour you have done to me, but were it not that I have also heard the voice of my Master saying, ‘Go forward’, (p.48) I would not have dared to accept such a position of trust and responsibility. In utter dependence, therefore, on Him, ‘Whose biddings are enablings’, I take up the work as a gift from Him, to be used for Him.26

The SWTN upheld Forrester Paton’s self-representation as a Christian worker: ‘Looking back over the past, her fellow-members cannot help expressing their admiration for her benevolent efforts in the cause of Christ and humanity, and their earnest prayer is that she may be long spared to enjoy what is to her “the luxury of doing good”, and to continue her manifold works of faith and labours of love.’27 The notion of female temperance reformers as evangelical agents with a personal responsibility for bringing Christ into the lives of drunken sinners is prominent in female temperance reformers’ discussions of their reform work, an idea which is evident in the League’s reckoning of Mrs Archibald Campbell’s address to the annual meeting of the BWTASCU: ‘She had found her temperance work a great blessing to her own soul, and besought the Christian women present to give themselves to this work for God, and try to save the poor drunkards by bringing them to Jesus.’28 In her address at the Glasgow District Union conference printed in the SWTN Mrs Mary A. Reid contended: ‘The reason why we women give ourselves to the cause of temperance is that we have faith in God, and that we believe this greatest of social evils to be alterable.’29 Biographies and obituaries printed in the SWTN were also likely to describe their subjects as servants of Christ. In an obituary for Mrs Margaret Black, Mary White described her fellow reformer’s involvement with Gospel temperance meetings in these terms: ‘Only those engaged in this line of service can understand at what cost of home rest and comfort and of exposure to all weathers the busy teacher went to these meetings, but we feel sure the privilege of thus serving God and man far out-weighed the sacrifice to her.’30 Similarly, a SWTN biography of Mrs McKinnon – President of the Dumfries branch, wife of a reverend and Superintendent of the national Evangelical Department (1897–1905) – describes her as a willing Christian worker: ‘Such a record of work meant much self-denying labour, much sacrifice of social and home life, and great physical and mental strain and were it not for a whole-hearted consecration to the Master’s service could not be accomplished.’31

Suffrage publications also discussed women’s public lives in terms of a Christian duty. The WSJ’s 1880 report of Mrs Wellstood’s speech includes her claim:

There were no doubt many ladies in high position who did not take any interest in the subject [the vote], because they knew nothing of the (p.49) degrading shackles which were put upon many women by the existing state of the law. But the more that question was becoming known, the more Christian women were beginning to see that religion and politics could not be separated.32

Wellstood, an early and long-standing member of the ENSWS and the wife of an Edinburgh town councillor, is further reported as arguing that women had a God-given right and duty to the parliamentary vote as a means of personal improvement and the improvement of less fortunate women; ‘it was the right of every woman to raise herself to the highest point to which her Maker has given her the power to rise. And not only endeavour to raise themselves, but they must raise their sisters with them.’33 Here, Wellstood emphasises the synergies between women’s benevolent work and the opportunity of the vote to influence law-making. Of the factors common to the experiences of the women in this study, religion was perhaps the most important, and networks among the faithful helped women to expand their opportunities for public work. The organisations considered here drew members from a range of Protestant denominations, and a Christian world-view was central both to the groups and to individual members.

Considering the relatively small numbers of Quakers in Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1870 to 1914 period, female members of the Religious Society of Friends enjoyed a disproportionately influential role in the organisations discussed here. For example, Miss Agnes Ann Bryson and Miss Mary White, described in the Annual Monitor as, ‘maiden ladies … among the most active and zealous of our small body in Scotland’, were especially distinguished among Friends and in Scotland’s reforming circles.34 Agnes Ann Bryson (1831?–1907), also known as Ann Bryson, was born in New York State but came to Scotland as a child. She lived her life in Glasgow where she was a Quaker Overseer, retiring to Ayr in her later years. Bryson was a member of the BWTASCU from 1881 to 1902, acting as vice-president of the Glasgow Prayer Union from 1895. Mary White (1827–1903) was born on the outskirts of Glasgow, the youngest child of William, a merchant, and Jane.35 White was a leader of the BWTASCU in Glasgow, acting first as secretary of the Glasgow Prayer Union from 1881 to 1891 and later as president (1893–1902). Bryson and White were dear companions and shared a home as well as a devotion to temperance reform. The high profiles of Bryson and White in the BWTASCU reflects the conclusions of Sandra Stanley Holton and Elizabeth Isichei who have argued that the ‘friendship’ ethos of the Society of Friends motivated a particularly strong devotion to voluntarism.36 Holton in particular has shown how the ‘friendship’ ideal could generate dependence among (p.50) co-religionists, a notion borne out by Bryson and White’s successful appeal to the Society of Friends for help in establishing the Whitevale Mission Shelter, a women’s temperance home in Glasgow. Bryson and White proposed the female inebriate home in the Quaker journal, the Monthly Friend: ‘For more than a year this subject has rested heavily on the mind of Agnes A. Bryson, with the belief that the Lord was calling her to devote herself to this work for Him, and open a washing-house, where such women could be welcomed to honest work and a personal influence gained over them for good.’37 The Friends financially supported the scheme, and thereafter either White or Bryson submitted reports on the home’s progress to the Monthly Record.

In light of the minority presence of Quakers in Scotland, it seems significant that some of the most prominent women of this study were drawn from their numbers. Thomas C. Kennedy has argued that female Friends were better equipped for a public role than, ‘almost any other comparable group of females in British life’.38 Historians of Quakerism have debated how well popular nineteenth-century perceptions of female Friends’ relative liberty reflected the experiences of Quaker women. Kennedy and Isichei have argued that while Quaker women shared in the preaching of the Word, they were nonetheless largely barred from decision-making.39 Indeed, constitutional equality of the sexes was not admitted among British Friends until 1898.40 The Quaker women of this study, however, were exceptionally active in the public sphere and seemed to maintain an impressive profile within the Society of Friends, and in 1878 White was recorded as a minister. This is significant because while all Friends were entitled to preach, to be recorded as a minister signified the status of first among equals, and suggests that a preacher was recognised as having a special gift for the ministry.41 Certainly, White was understood as more outspoken than Bryson: ‘In our meetings Mary White held a foremost place, but was helped by the sympathy and encouragement and occasionally by the voice of her friend.’42 So, while female Friends may have been barred from formal power within the Society of Friends, opportunities for preaching allowed women with a passion for the ministry to develop their public speaking skills, a talent that could be employed in the course of social reform as well as religious worship.

While a few Quaker women had prominent roles in the organisations, the Presbyterian denominations dominated the temperance, Liberal and suffrage groups in Scotland. In turn, Presbyterian networks were important for women’s public lives and might also support middle-class women’s contribution to the imperial project. Mrs Margaret Catherine Blaikie (1823–1915) was the President of the BWTASCU (1878–1905) and (p.51) later Honorary President (1906–14). She was born in Banff, the daughter of an Edinburgh gentleman, Walter Biggar, and Ann née Duff, daughter of an old Banffshire family. In 1845, Margaret married William Gardner Blaikie, variously the Free Church of Scotland minister at Pilrig, Professor of Divinity, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church and the President of the Pan-Presbyterian Council. The Blaikies lived first in Edinburgh, and later North Berwick. Further evidence of the strength of Scoto-American connections and religious networks is apparent in the claim that Margaret’s entry into the temperance movement in the early 1870s was inspired by the American evangelical Dwight L. Moody whose visit was hosted by the Blaikies.43

Blaikie’s faith encouraged her extensive public obligations including involvement in imperialist enterprises such as support for foreign missionary work. Near the turn of the century, Blaikie became involved with the Foreign Missionary Society. A selection of letters suggests that Blaikie led a ladies’ auxiliary; from 1883 the Church of Scotland Assembly had sanctioned the establishment of ladies’ auxiliaries to church reform and missionary organisations. William Stevenson wrote to Blaikie in 1898, urging her to organise a ladies’ auxiliary at the Presbyterian congregation in North Berwick. This letter suggests that, like branches of the BWTASCU, the Foreign Missionary Society’s ladies’ auxiliaries functioned partly as prayer unions: ‘The main idea is that the women of the congregation meet at least once a month for prayer on behalf of the women’s mission.’44 It is interesting to note the continuity that could run through the range of middle-class women’s organisations, as ‘praise and prayer’ was a central feature of temperance organisations. Likewise, Blaikie’s personal history reflects the experiences of the thousands of women involved in women’s religious organisations who viewed ‘praise and prayer’ as fundamental to their work. Ladies’ auxiliaries at home were an integral part of the support structure for female missionaries abroad, and MacDonald describes the work of these groups as ‘work parties’ to produce ‘fancy goods’ for sale, public speaking, and meeting with female missionaries on furlough.45 The correspondence between Blaikie and Stevenson, who co-ordinated the efforts of ladies’ auxiliaries, shows the importance both of visits from missionaries and of fund-raising to the operations of the ladies’ auxiliaries.46

Dr Agnes McLaren (1837–1913), most often associated with Edinburgh feminist circles, the ENSWS and the campaign for women’s access to medical training, was also drawn into foreign missionary work through religious networks. Excluded from medical training in Britain, McLaren studied in Montpellier, France and her decision to pursue a medical (p.52) profession was attributed to her sense of Christian duty: ‘From her study of the Gospels there grew up in her a deep personal love of Christ and a great desire to serve Him in the sick and poor. In order to better accomplish this, at the age of 40, she decided to become a physician, convinced that she could best serve God and her neighbour in this capacity.’47 Certainly, her time in southern France had an important influence on her religious life. During her twenty years abroad, McLaren regularly attended Catholic retreats, and she converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of sixty.48 At the age of seventy-two, McLaren travelled to Pakistan where she was instrumental in founding a hospital for women and children. As McLaren’s health prevented her management of the hospital, and as her efforts were further confounded by Church regulations against missionary nuns from practising medicine, her biographer claims that her sense of Christian mission and the ‘medical needs, misery and helplessness of the “purdah” women in the Orient’ led McLaren to agitate for medically trained nuns for work in the missionary field.49 Thus, she lobbied Rome five times for women’s permission to train in medicine, work which inspired the Austrian-born Anna Dengel to study medicine, to take over the hospital in Pakistan and to found the Medical Mission Sisters in Washington DC in 1925. The later period of McLaren’s life demonstrates the importance of a woman’s religious community to her public life. While, a sense of national and racial superiority may have coloured McLaren’s attitudes towards Indian women, her attitudes were equally influenced by a sincere interest in Asian women’s health. In other words, her medical mission to Pakistan represented an aspect of the Christian life of service she embarked on when she sought medical training.

Clearly, religious networks could serve as powerful catalysts for middle-class women’s public lives. Ann Bryson and Mary White’s reliance on their Quaker networks demonstrates that religious communities lent important financial as well as moral support for work in the feminine public sphere. Similarly, religious networks encouraged Margaret Blaikie and Agnes McLaren’s activities to enhance the capacity of women to participate in the imperial project beyond ‘helpmates’ to male professionals, but as missionaries and doctors. While women’s worship varied among the Presbyterian, Quaker and (minor) Roman Catholic presence in the organisations discussed here, fellowship within a community of faithful fostered middle-class women’s public work.

(p.53) Kinship networks

Kinship networks were also fundamental to women’s work in the feminine public sphere. The implications of kinship networks for women’s public lives appears gendered, as male and female kin offered different opportunities for women’s participation in public. Female kinship networks, especially between mothers and daughters, were vital for cultivating women’s interest in and skills required for a public life, and young well-todo women were often introduced to reforming activism by their mothers’ example. Biographical evidence and membership records indicate the influence of mothers’ reforming activities on the recruitment of daughters into middle-class women’s organisations. Many of the affluent women of this study were linked to families prominent in professional, business, religious and manufacturing sectors. In turn, their male kin often wielded power and prestige in public life at local and national levels. Minute books and organisational periodicals suggest that middle-class women used their relationships with prominent male kin as a means of promoting their reforming goals within masculine power structures.

Kinship networks with influential men were understood as beneficial for women’s public careers, and there is evidence that wives of prominent men took on equally prominent public roles. Mrs Priscilla Bright McLaren, President of the ENSWS, was one of the most distinguished British public women in the 1870 to 1914 period. She was the daughter of Jacob Bright, a well-known radical MP famous for his role in the anti-Corn Law agitation, as well as the wife of Duncan McLaren MP. McLaren’s close personal connections with radical liberalism shaped her political experience and strongly influenced her own political attitudes. For instance, the WSJ’s report of her speech at the 1880 women’s suffrage demonstration in the Manchester Free Trade Hall claims McLaren’s sentiments: ‘This hall was built in the cause of freedom, and some of us have learnt our political lessons within its walls many years ago, with distinguished men for our teachers, and we have learnt from them how persistent efforts leads to success in getting grievances redressed.’50 McLaren’s roots went deep into British radical society, and she was one of the most respected public women of her day in both Scottish- and British-national contexts, and the ENSWS described her as, ‘the recognised public instructress in righteousness’.51 McLaren’s home was considered a centre of liberal activism, and the ENSWS described Newington House, ‘as the Scottish centre and headquarters of various movements’.52 I have discussed elsewhere Edinburgh suffragists’ understanding of their central position in the women’s movement, and while suffragists in others areas of Scotland may (p.54) have disputed the central status associated with the Edinburgh women’s movement there can be no doubt that the McLaren family was pivotal in political and social reform in Edinburgh, Scotland and Britain.53 Priscilla’s partnership with Duncan helped to ensure her respected position in public life, and the ENSWS’s remembrance of its deceased leader claimed she shared a mutual set of reforming goals with her husband and that Priscilla, ‘entered fully into his struggles to amend the abuses of the civic life of that time, and no less heartily into his fifteen years’ representation of this city in Parliament’.54

Women’s familial relationships further connected the interests of women in Scotland with the London political scene. Mrs Rolland Rainy of the SWLF, wife of an MP, demonstrates how some Scottish public women used the opportunities afforded by marriage to promote their causes in the centre of British politics. In the early part of the twentieth century, Rainy was often reported in the minutes as the SWLF’s women’s suffrage representative in London. In March 1906, Mrs Rainy and Mrs McCollum represented the SWLF at the women’s suffrage conference organised by the Lancashire and Cheshire Union of WLAs, and in May Rainy was the SWLF representative in a deputation to Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman. In February 1907, Rainy again represented the SWLF at a London conference on the ‘Scope of the Women’s Suffrage Bill’. In February 1908, Mrs Falconer, Mrs Rolland Rainy, Mrs Watson, Mrs Dundas, Mrs White and Miss Alice Younger represented the SWLF at the Liberal parliamentary committee on women’s suffrage. Scottish suffrage organisations were tirelessly engaged in organising petitions and public meetings and other events designed to extend the campaign in Scotland, yet male kinship networks provided opportunities for Scottish suffragists to present their arguments directly to the political establishment in London.

The interpenetration of middle-class women’s personal and public lives is further apparent from records of the removal of Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson from the presidency of the SWLF. According to the SWLF minutes, in May 1902, Mrs Anna Lindsay and Mrs Campbell Lorimer moved to censure a circular disseminated to some of the membership by Munro-Ferguson, and to arrange for copies to be sent to all WLAs. The details of the letter are not disclosed in the minutes, only the claim that the circular was, ‘calculated to nullify all the efforts for unity which were made at the last Annual Meeting’ especially as regarded the election of delegates to the Council.55 Apparently, Munro-Ferguson was alarmed by the executive’s intention to distribute her circular, and a letter on her behalf was sent to the SWLF from W. S. Haldane, solicitor. (p.55) Haldane warned the SWLF, ‘that those who may take part in any way in publishing such a private letter without the writer’s sanction incur serious responsibility’.56 Mrs Ada Lang Todd, Vice-Chairwoman of the SWLF, had also attained legal advice and the minutes report the opinions of James Falconer, solicitor, and J. Campbell Lorimer, advocate, which upheld the legality of the SWLF’s actions. The conflict was resolved by the resignation of Munro-Ferguson and the re-election of Lady Ishbel Countess of Aberdeen. More importantly, Haldane, Falconer, and Campbell Lorimer were all related to SWLF members and this series of events reinforces the notion of a community of upper-middle-class women who operated alongside their male peers in public life.

Female kinship networks were similarly important, and the evidence suggests the influence of mothers on the public lives of their daughters. Smith-Rosenburg has stressed the importance of female kinship relationships for the ‘female world’, and has suggested the existence of a mother-daughter apprenticeship system.57 Such a system is hinted at in the Annual Monitor’s reckoning of Mary White’s experience:

Jane White mingled in a circle of cultured and philanthropic women, in whose houses meetings were held to discuss how they could best use their influence to discourage war, slavery, and all forms of evil. Mary White often accompanied her mother, and doubtless her heart was fired with the desire to do what she could to aid the cause of suffering humanity.58

Thus, it appears that from her youth White was exposed both to middle-class women’s reforming movements as well as women’s use of networks to advance their philanthropic aims. Likewise, Eliza Wigham (1820–1899), well known for her anti-slavery activism, was also a member of the BWTASCU (1897–98), the ENSWS (1870–78, 1892) and the SWLF (1891–94). Her mother, Jane Wigham née Smeal, was a similarly renowned reformer: ‘[Jane Wigham] was of great service in the preparation of an address to the Queen, which is said to have given a final blow to slavery in the West Indies. 1829, is said to have signed the first temperance pledge book in Scotland.’59 Priscilla McLaren worked with her step-daughter, Agnes McLaren, in the campaigns for women’s access to medical training and for women’s suffrage, while Mrs Whilemina Woyka and her daughter Dora worked together within the BWTASCU. It is difficult to know with precision how extensively mothers and daughters collaborated in the feminine public sphere: it is not always possible to identify positively women with the same surname as related. An analysis of members in the database who shared surnames and belonged to the same organisation (p.56) indicates eight instances of mothers and daughters working together.60 This data analysis also shows husbands and wives, and in one case father and daughter, working together in suffrage societies as well as sisters working alongside each other. It is difficult to gauge from the sample how extensively mothers and daughters shared their associational lives. Only a small proportion of members with shared surnames are known to be related and this method of detection is clearly flawed as it cannot account for name changes after marriage. At the very least, the database and the qualitative material strongly indicates that mothers were important factors in the public lives of their daughters. Further, middle-class women’s networking suggests that the feminine public sphere was strongly defined by women’s social lives in the domestic space and the local community. This seemingly contradictory idea underscores the permeability of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres and indicates that middle-class public women incorporated aspects of domestic life and female social customs into their pursuit of public roles.


Qualitative and quantitative evidence indicates that religious conviction and middle-class networks dominated the culture of Scotland’s well-todo public women. Christian faith appears as a key factor in middle-class women’s determination to pursue a public life, while religious networks provided material and spiritual support for women’s public work. Indeed, a range of networks contributed to women’s opportunities in public life. Networks within relatively homogeneous neighbourhoods were leveraged for organisational recruitment, while social life in the local community was mobilised for reform through drawing-room meetings. Kinship networks had varied implications for middle-class women’s public lives, from bringing Scotswomen’s reforming concerns to a London audience to facilitating daughters’ entry into public life. Yet, the feminine public sphere represents more than an arena for middle-class women’s reforming activities, and it is best understood as a site of middle-class women’s contribution to middle-class identity. Civic participation was a hallmark of middle-class culture in the 1870 to 1914 period. Affluent men enjoyed access to a range of formalised power structures at the local and national levels, and while women’s route into civic life was largely through the informal power structures of their reforming organisations, their contributions to a middle-class culture of civic participation should be considered no less significant. Female associational life may have paralleled the structure and tenor of men’s organisations, yet middle-class (p.57) women’s internalisation of supposed feminine moral superiority encouraged a desire to feminise middle-class public life. Thus, by contravening idealised notions of a sequestered femininity, middle-class public women sought to remould society in their own righteous image.



(1) Mrs Malaprop, ‘Short Essays – Woman’s Mission’, The Ladies’ Friend 1, no. 2 (Oct 1886): 22.

(2) Several historians have analysed the link between evangelicalism, ‘woman’s mission’ and feminism, for example see Olive Banks, Becoming a Feminist: The Social Origins of ‘First Wave’ Feminism (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986) and Faces of Feminism: A Study of Feminism as a Social Movement (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1981); Ellen Jordan, The Women’s Movement and Women’s Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain (London: Routledge, 1999); and Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (London: Virago Press Ltd., 1983; reprint, London: Virago Press, 1991).

(3) See Sue Morgan, ‘Faith, Sex and Purity: The Religio-Feminist Theory of Ellice Hopkins’, WHR 9, no. 1 (2000), 13–34.

(4) Lesley A. Orr MacDonald, A Unique and Glorious Mission: Women and Presbyterianism in Scotland 1830–1930 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 2000), 157.

(5) Eileen Janes Yeo, ‘Protestant Feminists and Catholic Saints in Victorian Britain’, Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-Representation in the Public Sphere, ed. Eileen Janes Yeo (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 141.

(6) ‘Women as Citizens’, SLWM (Jan 1909): 16. BL P.P.3611.tc.

(7) Mrs Latta, ‘The SWLF at Dundee’, SLWM (Mar 1912): 74. BL P.P.3611.tc.

(8) ‘SWLF Council Meetings’, SLWM (Apr 1911): 85. BL P.P.3611.tc.

(9) Mary White, ‘British Women’s Temperance Work’, SWTN 1, no. 3 (15 Feb 1897): 41. BWTASCU Collection.

(10) ‘Women’s Temperance Union’, League no. 14 (Apr 1882): 209.

(11) ‘British Women’s Association: Conversazione in Edinburgh’, League no. 49 (Dec 1882): 779.

(12) Mariana Valverde, ‘“Racial poison”: Drink, Male Vice, and Degeneration in First-Wave Feminism’, Women Suffrage in the British Empire, eds Mayhall, Levine and Fletcher, 43.

(13) Glasgow Prayer Union (GPU), Minutes (1886). Glasgow City Archives [hereafter GCA] TD 955/1/1.

(14) Mrs Milne, ‘Scotland’s Women to the Rescue’, STA (1907): 46.

(15) See Juliet Kinchin, ‘The Drawing Room’, The Scottish Home, ed. Annette Carruthers (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland Publishing, 1996), 155–80; and Gordon and Nair, Public Lives.

(16) SFWSS Kilmarnock Branch, Minutes (1913). Ayrshire Collection, Ayrshire Archives, Ayr [hereafter Ayrshire Collection].

(17) See Smith-Rosenburg, ‘The Female World of Love and Ritual’.

(18) STL, ‘Ladies Temperance Conference’, League no. 14 (Apr 1882): 216.

(19) Charles J. Smith, Historic South Edinburgh Volume 1 (Haddington: Charles Skilton Ltd., 1978), 26. National Library of Scotland [hereafter NLS] H3. 2o1. 1889.

(p.58) (20) Smith, Historic South Edinburgh Volume 1, 27–8. NLS H3. 2o1. 1889.

(21) Norma Armstrong, Edinburgh as it Was Volume II: The People of Edinburgh (Hendon Hill, Lancashire: Hendon Publishing Company Limited, 1977), 8. NLS 6. 2551.

(22) Charles J. Smith, Historic South Edinburgh Volume 3 (Haddington: Charles Skilton Ltd., 1978), 22. NLS H3. 2o1. 1889.

(23) For example, see David Cannadine, ‘Victorian Cities: How Different?’, Social History 4 (1977): 457–82; H. J. Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A Study of the Growth of Camberwell (London: Leicester University Press, 1961); and David Ward, ‘Environs and Neighbours in the “Two Nations”: Residential Differentiation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Leeds’, Journal of Historical Geography 6, no. 2 (1980): 133–62.

(24) ‘Mrs McKinnon, Dumfries’, SWTN 2, no. 9 (Sep 1898): 134. BWTASCU Collection.

(25) Mrs Barton, ‘Impressions from the Antipodes’, SLWM (Jun 1912): 126–7. BL P.P.3611. tc.

(26) ‘Message from the President’, SWTN 11, no. 2 (Feb 1907): 19. BWTASCU Collection.

(27) ‘Miss and Mrs Forrester Paton’, SWTN 1, no. 7 (15 Jun 1897): 99. BWTASCU Collection.

(28) ‘British Women’s Temperance Association’, League no. 46 (Nov 1882): 723.

(29) ‘Municipal Work’, SWTN 8, no. 5 (May 1904): 66. BWTASCU Collection.

(30) Mary White, ‘The Late Mrs Black of the Glasgow School of Cookery’, SWTN 7, no. 4 (Apr 1903): 50. BWTASCU Collection.

(31) ‘Mrs McKinnon, Dumfries’, SWTN 2, no. 9 (Sep 1898): 134. BWTASCU Collection.

(32) ‘The Grand National Demonstration of Women in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester’, WSJ 11, no. 121 (14 Feb 1880): 44. WL.

(33) ‘The Grand National Demonstration of Women’, 44. WL.

(34) Society of Friends, ‘Agnes Ann Bryson’, Annual Monitor 96 (1909): 14. Library of the Society of Friends [hereafter LSF].

(35) Megan Smitley, ‘Mary White’, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia Vol. 2, eds Jack S. Blocker, David Fahey and Ian R. Tyrrell (Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 657.

(36) Sandra Stanley Holton, ‘Kinship and Friendship: Quaker Women’s Networks and the Women’s Movement’, WHR 14, no. 3&4 (2005): 368; Elizabeth Isichei, Victorian Quakers (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 238.

(37) White, ‘Proposed “Prison Gate Mission”’, 172. LSF.

(38) Thomas C. Kennedy, British Quakerism 1860–1912: The Transformation of a Religious Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 234.

(39) See Isichei, Victorian Quakers; and Kennedy, British Quakerism.

(40) Kennedy, British Quakerism, 227.

(41) I am grateful for the insights offered by Dr Paul F. Burton. See also, Kennedy, British Quakerism, 211.

(42) Society of Friends, ‘Agnes Ann Bryson’, 13. LSF.

(43) Jane Darling, ‘The Late Mrs Blaikie’, SWTN 19, no. 9 (Sept 1915): 107. BWTASCU Collection.

(44) Foreign Mission Society, Letter from William Stevenson to Margaret Blaikie (1898). NLS MSS 7922.

(45) For more on Scotswomen’s work for foreign missions, see MacDonald, A Unique and Glorious Mission, especially chapter 3.

(46) Foreign Mission Society, Letter from William Stevenson to Margaret Blaikie (1902). NLS MSS 7926.

(p.59) (47) Doctor Agnes McLaren (1837–1913) Physician Convert Pioneer (1953), 1. NLS HP1. 86. 2696.

(48) For more on the conversion of Protestant feminists, see Yeo, ‘Protestant Feminists and Catholic Saints’.

(49) Doctor Agnes McLaren, 1. NLS HP1. 86. 2696.

(50) ‘The Grand National Demonstration of Women at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester’, WSJ 11, no. 121 (14 Feb 1880): 38. WL.

(51) ENSWS, Report of Committee (Edinburgh: Darien Press, 1907), 20. NLS HP1.82.1728.

(52) ENSWS, Report of Committee, 9. NLS HP1.82.1728.

(53) See Megan Smitley, ‘Feminist Anglo-Saxonism?: The Representation of “Scotch” Women in the English Women’s Press in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Cultural and Social History 4, no.3 (2007): 337–55.

(54) ENSWS, Report of Committee, 12.

(55) SWLF, Minutes (1902). NLS Acc. 11765/23.

(56) SWLF, Minutes (1902). NLS Acc. 11765/23.

(57) Smith-Rosenburg, ‘The Female World of Love and Ritual’, 16.

(58) Society of Friends, ‘Mary White’, Annual Monitor 63 (1905): 148. LSF.

(59) Society of Friends, Dictionary of Quaker Biography. LSF.

(60) See Appendix 6.