Freedom Fighters

04 Jan 2009
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Robert Bruce, along with William Wallace and Andrew Moray epitomise the Scots freedom-fighter, leading legions of tartan-clad warriors to secure or defend liberty. But who were the Scots women who have fought the brave fight for civil rights around the world?

As far back as 1320 the rights of the Scottish people to rid themselves of a tyrannical monarch were proclaimed in the Declaration of Arbroath a document that arguably inspired the American Constitution four and a half centuries later.

But it was through the ballot box rather than on the battlefield that true liberty was won. And the legacy of a few dedicated, passionate and driven individuals in delivering the vote not only in Scotland but
across the wider world is quite remarkable. Some, like Henry Campbell-Bannerman and James Keir Hardie are well known. Hardie, in particular, is remembered as a man who worked tirelessly to extend the
franchise for both sexes.

Jessie Chrystal MacMillan

But the impact of women in the fight for civil rights is less celebrated. A plaque at Edinburgh University honouring Jessie Chrystal MacMillan as its first female science graduate in 1896 is only one small
clue to her pioneering achievements. In 1908 she became the first woman to plead before the House of Lords when arguing that female university graduates should be given the right to vote. She was Secretary of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance between 1913 and 1920 and at the outbreak of the Great War helped organise the International Congress of Women. Chrystal's influence was such that she was even made a delegate to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Yet beyond a small plaque in the centre of Edinburgh, Chrystal MacMillan is all but forgotten.

Other women who took the fight for democracy overseas are likewise little known in the home country. Happily, many are remembered with pride in places far from Scotland.

Katherine Wilson Sheppard

A case in point is Katherine Wilson Sheppard, daughter of Scots who emigrated to New Zealand. Thanks in large measure to her efforts, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the right
to vote. Katherine emigrated there with her family in the late 1860's and became politicised through her involvement in the temperance movement. She drew up three huge petitions demanding franchise
extension. The force of this was so great that in 1893 the New Zealand government caved in. It was a triumph of extraordinary proportions for Katherine Sheppard. A world first that provided a beacon to movements elsewhere.

Two other notable New Zealand reformers with Scottish connections are also worthy of mention.

Anna Paterson Stout

The first is Anna Paterson Stout. Though a native New Zealander, her parents were Scottish and her husband, and future Prime Minister of the country, Sir Robert Stout was born in Shetland. Because of Robert's own career, Anna's successes have sometimes been overlooked. After the vote was won in New Zealand in 1893 she took the cause of women's rights all over the world, and especially to the United Kingdom where Anna became a close friend and ally of the Pankhursts.

Jessie Mackay

Jessie Mackay, also a New Zealander of Scots extraction made her contribution to the cause of social justice through literature. Jessie's first book of poems, The Spirit of the Rangatira inspired and helped shape a sense of nationhood in the 1890s at the exact time when New Zealand women were winning the vote. The two events were part of the same process. Jessie's poetry spoke to and for ordinary folk. Some of
her work was couched in the Scots dialect, and other parts made use of Maori legend. Though small of stature and thinly spoken, Jessie Mackay was a literary giant, revered as the unofficial poet laureate of New Zealand.

Catherine Helen Spence

Another who relied on the power of the pen to promote freedom was Catherine Helen Spence. Born in Melrose in the Scottish Borders in 1825, she emigrated and became Australia's first professional woman journalist and first female political candidate. Her tireless work in social and political reform, children's welfare and citizens' rights earned her the sobriquet of "Australia's Greatest Woman". While New Zealand might have been the first country to deliver women the vote, Catherine Spence's influence on suffrage culminated in South Australia chalking up its own first in giving women the right to stand for Parliament. It was another breach in the wall of male exclusivity and its impact reverberated around the world.

Long after her death Catherine Spence continues to fascinate and influence. Named in a recent poll as one of the ten greatest South Australians and, like Katherine Sheppard, featured on local banknotes, a plaque was erected to mark her birthplace in Melrose in 1999.

And in North America

Whilst Scots did much to champion reform in the Southern Hemisphere they also had a considerable impact in North America.

Born in 1795, Francis Wright was orphaned as an infant but luckily had James Mylne, the Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University as an uncle. Encouraged by him to think for herself, Fanny grew to admire the United States. Her glowing account of the new democracy, "Views of Society and Manners in America" written after a visit there in 1818 was hugely influential with parliamentary campaigners in Britain.

Fanny eventually settled in the United States, dedicating her life to the causes of female equality, anti-slavery and a new way of living. In this she was influenced by the socialist community set up in Indiana by
Robert Owen, founder of New Lanark in Scotland, and of his son Robert Dale Owen.

In 1825 Fanny purchased land at a place called Nashoba in Tennessee. She planned to establish a co-operative community where freed slaves would live and intermingle with white people. In itself that was outrageously controversial. But Fanny Wright went further and encouraged intercourse between the races as the only way to break down racial barriers. Ultimately Nashoba was a failure, but undeterred she continued to argue and to publish her views on socialism, anti slavery and women's rights including free education for all, access to birth control and changes to the marriage and divorce laws. When she died in 1852 her tombstone in Cincinnati was inscribed with words she had chosen: "I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life."

Where Fanny Wright had pioneered new ideas in nineteenth century America, another woman of Scots lineage, Nellie McClung, did something similar almost a century later in neighbouring Canada.

A radical feminist she was rarely lost for words. When the Premier of Manitoba suggested "nice" women did not want the vote, Nellie replied: "By nice women . . . you probably mean selfish women who have no more thought for the underprivileged, overworked women than a pussycat in a sunny window for the starving kitten in the street. Now in that sense I am not a nice woman for I do care."

Whether or not she was nice, Nellie McClung was most certainly determined. In 1916, thanks in very large part to her efforts, first in Manitoba and then in many other parts of Canada, women were granted the
vote. Five years later Nellie McClung was elected as a Liberal MP where she fought for medical care, birth control and freer divorce laws. Less acknowledged, however, was her call for the sterilization of certain
minorities.

Nellie is also remembered for the part she played in the famous "Person's Case" of 1929 when she fought for women to be allowed to serve on the Canadian Senate. To do so would have contravened the British
North America Act of 1867 which stated that a "person" could only mean a man. After a protracted legal battle which involved an appeal to the British Privy Council, Nellie triumphed. Canadian women were finally
declared to be "persons".

It is now over ninety years since women first gained the vote in Britain a - seismic event which could not have happened but for the efforts of suffragists at home and abroad. Women campaigners like Katherine Wilson Sheppard, Jessie Mackay, Nellie McClung and Catherine Helen Spence.

Change today

And change continues to this day. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have had female Lord Provosts. The head of the Scottish judiciary, the Lord Advocate, is a woman, as is a third of the members of the Scottish Parliament. Of the four main political parties at Holyrood, one is now led by women, and one has a woman as its deputy leader. Perhaps the biggest tribute that can be paid to those who fought long and hard to win civil rights for all is that having women in positions of power and influence is no longer considered to be news. It is, as it should be, quite unremarkable.

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