School Board Women and Active Citizenship in Scotland, 1873-1919 Introduction

School board women and social citizenship

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School board women and social citizenship

Of course, however active school board women were, without the franchise they were not recognised as full citizens. 64 Nevertheless, they had a role in the education of children which, according to T.H. Marshall, had ‘a direct bearing on citizenship’ and was recognized to be increasingly important as the electorate expanded. 65 Moreover, while there was controversy over the issue of married women and the franchise, in school board elections any woman who met the property requirements could vote and, as has been noted above, there were considerable numbers of married and widowed female board members. Indeed, of the four women who stood for election to the Glasgow School Board in March 1911, only one was single. 66 Married women had the support of their husbands: for wealthy couples, the wife’s school board work was an extension of their philanthropic commitment, and for socialist couples, it was integral to their political activities. 67 Whereas at least half of the female board members included in this study never married, contemporary accounts, notably obituaries, show that they were not considered ‘redundant’. 68 School board women were acknowledged as not just meeting the expectations of service expected of middle-class women, but also making the case for a larger female representation on public bodies. 69 At their deaths a number of these women were publicly mourned as a loss not just to their local community but to the region (such as Grace Paterson and Christina Jamieson) and the nation (notably Flora Stevenson and Agnes Hardie), while a few were internationally renowned (for example Christina Rainy and Minna Cowan). 70

School-board women were part of larger networks of feminists and reformers who reached out to the rest of the country: their contribution to education was local, but they sought to extend their influence to a national level. Thus Flora Stevenson’s sister, Louisa, who was one of the first two women elected to the Edinburgh Parochial Board, spoke at that Women’s Conference in Aberdeen in 1888 in an effort to persuade local women to campaign for female representation on both school and parochial boards. 71 She deemed such work an aspect of women’s contribution to ‘public spirit’ which she defined as ‘recognition of individual responsibility with regard to the interests of our country generally and more particularly of the town or district in which we live’. 72 True, men continued to dominate public life, but school board women show that women were not confined to the private sphere. Indeed, they embodied the permeability of the latter.

It is, of course, difficult to assess the influence of so few women on public life. Lindy Moore contends that such women were exceptional, and that however significant they might have been as role models they nevertheless give ‘a misleading impression of the presence and influence of women in Scottish local educational governance in general’. Yet while, as she argues, they were ‘perceived and grouped in terms of gender and allocated responsibilities accordingly’, this article has shown that in practice their contribution to the boards was broader than that. 73 They certainly had a gendered construction of citizenship which appeared to restrict what they could do, yet it was also a challenge to the supposed gender neutrality of existing definitions of citizenship. In particular, school board women contributed to the development of ideas of social citizenship, which as Ruth Lister has shown linked social reform to arguments for equal rights. 74 As Patricia Hollis has demonstrated for their counterparts in England, school board women in Scotland began by establishing their credentials in ‘womanly work’ but were soon contributing to the full range of educational policy. 75 The ladies’ platform in school board elections may indeed have reinforced traditional notions of women’s place, but their work through the committee structures firmly brought what were considered private concerns into the public sphere. They thus pushed forward the social element of Marshall’s definition of citizenship concerning welfare and security and the right ‘to live the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevailing in society’, standards which they strove to improve. 76

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