Throughout the nineteenth century, the ideology of separate spheres for the sexes informed the expansion of the boundaries of the public sphere. Middle-class women in particular ‘mobilised the idea of themselves as a moral vanguard to justify their entry into public campaigns’. 1 The two movements for citizenship and education were closely united, and as will be demonstrated, many women who served on school boards in Scotland between the two education acts of 1872 and 1918 both supported women’s entry to the universities and devoted themselves to public service, ‘counteracting the tendency to prefer narrow private ends to the public good’. 2 Eleanor Gordon has pointed out that although the un-salaried work of women in local government did not challenge the notion of separate spheres for the sexes, it provided them with ‘the opportunity to carve out a public space, and to push back the boundaries of their lives’. 3 Rather than see the home as a haven in a heartless world, they believed that the interaction of the public and private, so long as it was guided and managed by virtuous public-spirited women and men of their class, would promote the good of both.
In particular, female school board members in Scotland shared this belief with their counterparts in England: children needed women on school boards, and the community needed women in public service. School board women in both countries had a common vision of promoting women’s claim to a respectable place in public and political life and thereby demonstrating their right to the franchise and full citizenship. As Laura Mayhall has pointed out for the Edwardian period, although there was still no consensus on what citizenship for women entailed, it was not viewed by feminists as an abstract concept; rather, the emphasis was on civic virtue, on women’s duty to act for the public good and challenge the artificial divisions between public and private spheres. 4
Set up in Scotland with the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, school boards were elected every three years by voters who were owners or occupiers of property above £4 annual rental; each had as many votes as the board had members (between five and 15). 5 Women were eligible to vote and to stand for election. The women who stood were already involved in a wide range of social and charitable activities and in the women’s movement. 6 Yet they have appeared only briefly in histories of Scottish education and have generally been dismissed as both exceptional and restricted by their gender. 7 A large majority certainly championed the domestic education of working-class girls and insisted on the need for ladies to oversee it, a discourse which highlighted the social differences between women. Many school board women additionally declared themselves to be guardians of the interests of women teachers, which some at least appreciated.8 The following discussion will show, however, that once on the board, women were able to influence the general work through the committee structure.
More generally, it is argued that school board women made the domestic sphere a political issue and helped define ways in which women could become citizens. Indeed, throughout Britain, education was a key area where women could achieve a measure of status and authority, and the work of women on school boards set an important precedent for women holding public office. Feminists generally tended not to claim rights but to define a public role for women in terms of duties owed to others, especially the poor. This notion of ‘women’s mission’ certainly confirmed gender differences mediated by social class; but accepting such a distinctive role was not seen as a barrier to equality. Citizenship was about service and participation in public as well as in private life. As Jane Martin has shown for London, whereas school board women did not challenge assumptions about femininity, they did alter them through their public work. 9
School board women in both Scotland and England believed that schooling should lead to the construction of active citizens, but as this article will also reveal there was a common belief among Scots that the education system was central to a sense of Scottish identity and of worth within the Empire. Since Scotland did not have a government separate from Westminster, local politics played the biggest part in the lives of most Scots. Moreover, Scottish education, the Kirk and the law were recognised as the three foundational guarantees of national identity within the Union of 1707, with the first two as key institutions for local involvement. In a society which valued its ‘democratic’ tradition in education, school boards became key sites for the coming together of the public and private spheres. 10