September 2014 – Guest Blogger Elizabeth Ewan

Elizabeth Ewan is University Research Chair in History and Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada. She has served as a member of the WHS Steering Committee and editor of the WHS Newsletter. She was one of the co-editors of The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Her current work focuses on gender and crime in early modern Scotland and on masculinity in Scottish history.

It has been an extraordinary month in Scotland. Whichever side people were on in the Referendum, it seems that they largely agree on the need for change and a new way forward to make Scotland a better country. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, and from a WHS perspective, especially what part women in Scotland (including women’s historians) can play. By the end of October, there will potentially be three women serving as party leaders in Parliament (providing the two current ones survive post-Referendum upheaval).

Living in Canada for much of the time, I do not get as much coverage of Scottish political life as those of you in Scotland (although I was glued to television and radio all Referendum night!). I may be wrong in this, but it seemed to me that questions about how independence/continued union would affect women specifically were not much discussed in the media, although I know that groups such as Women for Independence were active in the campaign. Perhaps one of the outcomes of the September 18 vote will be a greater representation of women in politics as well as a greater willingness to listen to women’s voices (one can hope!)

One of the ways to increase awareness of such issues, and one in which WHS plays a major part, is by educating a new generation who are aware of the role women in both Scotland and other countries played in the past and the ways in which gendered norms and expectations affected  and continue to affect their lives.  The past two decades have witnessed a flourishing of women’s and gender history in Scotland not just in the academy but also beyond it. Projects such as the various WHS publications, and the Mapping Memorial to Women project, as well as collaboration with other groups interested in women’s history, have done a great deal to interest the general public specifically in the role of Scottish women, and older established societies such as the Saltire Society have begun to take this on board.

My own academic home, the Centre for Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is particularly fortunate to be housed in a History Department where women’s history is flourishing and gender history is routinely included in almost all our courses. This ensures that our Scottish Studies postgrads have contact with faculty, fellow postgrads, and visiting scholars interested in women in many different societies, providing a rich comparative perspective for their studies. Scottish gender history has recently gone from strength to strength among our postgrads, so that there are now six Scottish doctoral students (out of seven in total) as well as one recent and one current postdoctoral fellow working on gender topics in medieval and early modern Scotland. Their research covers topics as diverse as women and cultural patronage c.1050-1300, masculinity in fourteenth-century Scotland, marriage in the sixteenth  century, the power of women’s speech in the witch trials, and women’s role in seventeenth-century Canongate. This shared interest in gender history provides a marvellous sense of community among them and I hope we will be able to continue this focus among our postgrads in the years to come.

We have also been delighted that our graduates have found work in universities across Canada (and also outside Canada, including WHS member Elizabeth Ritchie). The ones in Canadian universities are now participating in our subversive plot to ‘Scotticize’ history departments across the country! They in turn will educate a new generation. One advantage (?) our postgrads have is that since the study of Scottish history is a very marginal field in Canada, they are constantly explaining its value. When ‘women’ and ‘gender’ are added into the equation, it ensures that they become experts on defending the value of their work! Scholars working on Scottish gender history in Canada have their own form of triple marginalization (with the medieval/early modern research of many of them perhaps adding a fourth). This marginalization has been addressed recently by the establishment of NOSH (The North American Organization of Scottish Historians.)

A large proportion of the members are working on women and gender history topics. Anyone in North America working on Scottish topics is welcome to join. We are also fortunate that we enjoy the freedom to research, to learn, and to educate, a freedom which is not found everywhere in the world

I was reminded of the importance of the education of girls to the entire community and to the world’s future by an article by Julia Gillard and Cate Blanchett in the Guardian.

But the article also emphasized for me the relative invisibility in the current world’s media of the Nigerian girls, abducted while they were attending school and who have still not been rescued.

Perhaps by continuing to explore women’s lives in the past, we can contribute our part to what Malala Yousafzai, survivor of violence for advocating girls’ education, called the power of ‘one child, one teacher, one book, one pen’ to change the world. James VI spoke of the power of his pen to govern Scotland when he moved to England in the first step to unite the two realms; that pen was used in ensuring his own political power. In today’s interconnected world, the pens, both concrete and digital, of those committed to the study of women and gender, can be more powerful than ever.


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