SHALL WE NOT SPEAK FOR OURSELVES? Telling a different story of Scotland’s past



WFI National Committee member Dr Lesley Orr explains how history works, and why we're hosting our women's history event in Dundee on March 5th. 

Saturday 4 October 2014 – what a day that was. Just three weeks after the independence referendum, a thousand women from all over Scotland, from teenagers to nonagenarians, gathered in St Matthew’s Church, Perth. We were there to celebrate the considerable achievements of Women for Independence as a remarkable new grassroots movement of activists, and to discuss how the energy of that movement could be utilised for the continuing task of campaigning – as women of independence - for a better, fairer, more equal Scotland. The atmosphere was electric, as women shared their testimonies, their anger, their hopes, their ideas and their determination to carry on the struggle – in sisterhood and solidarity. Like most others who were in Perth that day, I found it intensely moving to be part of that ‘collective effervescence’: it was such a potent experience of resilient women affirming their capacity for imaginative and empowering political engagement. 

After the event, someone asked whether it had been the largest  feminist gathering in modern Scottish history. Well, that depends on how you define ‘modern’, but while we conducted that friendly but noisy feminist occupation of St Matthew’s (and the symbolic significance of women holding forth in a space in which they would traditionally have been expected to keep silent, was not lost on us) I found myself thinking of the thousands of women who occupied Perth to protest in the summer of 1914. They came, as we did, from across Scotland. And they were in the town because four suffragettes were incarcerated and being forcibly fed in Perth Prison. From 3 July, the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) organised a 24 hour picket outside the prison. They sang songs and hymns through the night, disrupted church services and cinema performances. There were rallies, speeches and mass marches. On one occasion the sister of Arabella Scott (who was forcibly fed morning and night for five weeks) addressed the crowd and then invited them to follow her to the prison. Two thousand sang ‘Scots Wha Hae’ at the gates. Suffragettes also risked the patriotic wrath of Perth by seeking to disrupt a Royal visit to the city on 8 July.  But their persistence and courage had an impact. Perth Trades Council held a special meeting at which members resolved to protest against forcible feeding and to petition MPs. The Council secretary was reported to have said, ‘The militant section had carried the war into their midst, and in doing so they had taught them much they had been ignorant of. Twelve months ago a militant could not receive a hearing, and was hooted and bawled at as though she were a fanatic. Now, large crowds nightly assembled to hear and express sympathy with them. ‘[1]

Scottish women – and especially WFI as a movement of politically active women exercising their citizenship – surely stand on the shoulders of our foresisters who broke their silence and put their bodies on the line to claim their rights of citizenship. The campaign for women’s suffrage took sixty years. From Shetland to Stranraer, thousands of women got off their sofas to sign petitions, write pamphlets, address meetings, challenge the law, confront hostile hecklers, persuade family and friends. A mass movement was mobilised, and in the process Scottish women from every background discovered their own capacity and  independence. Teresa Billington-Greig, one of the leaders of the militant movement in Scotland, wrote that its feminists proclaimed the right of insurrection: ‘I disavow your authority. I put aside your cobweb conventions of law and government. I rebel. I claim my inalienable right to cast off servitude. I emancipate myself.’[2]

This is our heritage and our power. But how many of us know about the 1914 Perth protests, or about Chrystal MacMillan and the Scottish Women Graduates Case? [3] How many of us have seen the excellent film Suffragette and wondered what was happening in Scotland while the Pankhursts were rallying their troops in London? How many of us know that rejection of the centralised Pankhurst-run WSPU was widespread in Scotland, where the more democratic Women’s Freedom League was particularly strong? Or that there was considerable overlap and cooperation between the constitutional and militant wings of the suffrage movement in Scotland?  

It’s great that resources are now available for history teachers so that students can learn more about the Scottish movement and its distinctive characteristics: . Back in the day, I went through O Grade and Higher history and learnt nothing about the history of Scotland – my own nation. And nothing about women either! The invisibility of women particularly perplexed me – surely they were deeply involved in shaping, sustaining and struggling for the people, communities and values that mattered to them. But when I did finally start reading books that purported to tell the story of Scotland, they seemed entirely concerned with narratives and myths, institutions and events shaped around the actions of men – women only got a mention as queens, witches or deviants. You can probably recite the litany – of Wallace and Bruce, Knox and Bonnie Prince Charlie (aye right), the Highland Soldier and the Red Clydesiders.  Did women really have no history? They were certainly absent as historical actors in the writing of Scotland’s past.

In the early 1990s when I embarked on doctoral research, to cherchez les femmes in 19th and 20th century Scotland, I was riding on the second wave of feminism (though the whole notion of feminism coming in waves has rightly been challenged). From the 1970s, fired up by new analysis of women’s inequality and oppression as embedded in enduring patriarchal laws, structures and customs, feminist activists and scholars sought to recover the voices and stories of women who were hidden from history. They were searching for a ‘usable past’, and worked hard to restore invisible women to the picture.  But it soon became clear that it wasn’t enough just to add women. As someone said, what’s the point in tinsel hanging on the old tree if the tree is the problem. It was vital to question, reinterpret and reframe the dominant narrative of Scotland’s story – and dismantle some of the hoary old myths Scots had been telling themselves about identity, politics and power.  That required more than simply finding out about the lives of Scottish women – Mary Slessor, Elsie Inglis, Mary Barbour and all the others – who could be the heroic female counterparts to Braveheart (although that is a vital and inspiring aspect of exploring our history). The complex historical patterns of continuity and change are about political and economic structures; they’re about culture and mobility and who controls the spaces where humans live and interact; they’re about the ideologies and discourses which shape and police the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. The traditional dominant narrative of Scotland’s past told a story of a manmade nation of separate spheres. It situated men of action in the realm of public, military and political affairs, driving change on the national and international stages where history was made. Women’s realm was characterised as private, domestic and essentially determined in role and function by their biology. Without public agency, they had no history.

Even with the flurry of new histories of Scotland, written around the time of devolution, discussion of women’s lives and experiences remained largely absent, or appended to the ‘main’ story in a tokenistic way. But new generations of feminist, social and cultural historians have emerged, challenging the old certainties and recognising that gender (intersecting with class, ethnicity and other identity markers) has been a pervasive organising principle of human relations, social processes and power, and therefore needs to be taken seriously in any meaningful investigation of our past.

Gender is socially constructed and mapped onto biologically male and female bodies. It refers not simply to women and men, but to the relationships between and among them. Gender identities and norms condition the way human beings are perceived, and how they are expected to think and act.  But these are not fixed - they vary across time and place. Gender inequality is not a single, enduring system of domination, but comes up against resistance and challenge in different contexts, and adapts in response. The structures and ideologies which maintain inequalities are powerful, but susceptible to change. And that makes all of us agents of history. As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, women are made, not born.

Gender has been a really useful tool for analysing and interpreting the changing meanings and practices of masculinity and femininity in Scottish history. Women’s History Scotland  - a network of scholars and others  with a commitment to women’s and gender history – has been a vital catalyst to stimulate important new work and publications. As Lynn Abrams says in the introduction to Gender in Scottish History Since 1700, ‘The ‘gender agenda’ for Scottish history has the potential to show how universal histories are partial, and to contribute to a more inclusive reading of Scotland’s history’. [4] She notes some of the important ways in which ideas about gender and gender roles have shaped the past – in work and labour relations; in religion, social control and sexual behaviour; the regulation of family life; motherhood and fatherhood; the representation of men and women in civil and criminal courts. And not least, national identity and politics have been profoundly gendered.  How do women feel about and engage with the traditional markers of Scottish identity – from military valour to the Hard Man, to the national football team…and are there any signs of change in these? Sue Innes, Jane Rendall and others have also redefined what constitutes ‘political’ to include civil society, reform campaigns and grassroots activities – and have thus reclaimed the wide ranging, significant and influential political engagement of women seeking change long before, during and since the struggle for equal rights of formal citizenship. This takes seriously the voices and perspectives ‘from below’ and surely resonates with the emergence, growth and vitality of Women for Independence. Scottish women have been here before!

We are women for independence who believe in independence for women. To meet those aims and aspirations, we need to grapple with the legacy of Scotland’s past, and how it continues to influence the present, so that we have the resources and inspiration to shape the future.

That’s one of the reasons we are organising an event to celebrate and learn from the stories, struggles and strategies of Scottish women who were agents for change. It’s called ‘SHALL WE NOT SPEAK FOR OURSELVES’: History, Herstory, Your Story, and will take place on Saturday 5 March at the Bonar Hall, Dundee.  We couldn’t be meeting in a more appropriate place. Dundee was a city which gave the lie to separate spheres, for the industrial revolution there was built on the labour of ‘bold mill lassies’ and married women who worked in the jute factories. Dundee women have been at the forefront of struggles and achievements in the labour movement, politics, suffrage, religion, social reform, education, business, the arts…the list is endless. Dundee Women’s Trail commemorates  some of the amazing women who contributed to the city’s unique history – and there will be opportunities to follow the trail as part of our conference. Workshops led by feminist historians, local women’s history groups, activists and campaigners deal with topics ranging widely from 19th century anti-slavery campaigners and women who put themselves on the line to promote a peaceful end to the First World War,  to  working class women who led the rent strike campaign, interwar active citizens, women who worked in engineering and science, stories of women ‘from there to here’, reminding us of Scotland’s legacy as partner in the British Empire; and voices from the 1970s women’s liberation and anti-violence against women movements. And you can find out the story behind that quotation which gives the event its title. 

But the day won’t just be about listening and learning from ‘experts’: it will be an opportunity to share and map our own stories, contributing to the complex patterns and colours of women’s diverse lives through the years in this complicated wee nation. And we’ll reflect on what there is to learn from past struggles against gendered constraints and inequalities which might  inform our activism now.  All this for a tenner – so what are you waiting for? Book a place today! Shall we not speak for ourselves? Damn right we shall!




[1] See Leah Leneman A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (pp.198-208)  for an account of events in Perth, June-July 1914

[2] C McPhee and A Fitzgerald, The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig p.147

[3] Chrystal Macmillan was one of the first women to graduate from Edinburgh University in 1894. With five others she claimed the right to vote in general elections for the Scottish graduates MP. This was rejected by the Scottish courts and the women took an appeal all the way to the House of Lords in 1908, where Chrystal spoke for several hours as counsel, arguing that women should be recognised as ‘persons’ with the right to vote. The case was defeated, but Chrystal was lauded as ‘the Scottish Portia’ and was a lifelong campaigner for  women’s legal and human rights.

[4] L Abrams, E Gordon, D Simonton, E J Yeo (eds) Gender in Scottish History since 1700 , Edinburgh 2006. The book is one of a series produced by Women’s History Scotland and published by Edinburgh University Press. Other key resources are the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2006), and Scottish Women: A Documentary History 1780 – 1914 (2013).

Find an Event Donate


get updates