The Suffrage Oak: Marking 100 Years of Women ‘Living and Growing’ into the Body Politic

Featured

Suffrage Oak, 2015, before storm damage, © Glasgow Women’s Library

One hundred years ago today, Louisa Innes Lumsden (1840-1935) proclaimed:

‘the vote was the door to everything and the door was open’. [1]

On 20th April 1918, in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, Louisa Lumsden was ‘honoured’ to plant an oak tree to commemorate and celebrate the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave some women the vote. The oak tree stands at the top of Kelvin Way and has continued to be a reminder, symbol and inspiration to the women of Glasgow over the past hundred years. In 1995, on International Women’s Day, the Women’s Committee of Glasgow City Council erected a beautiful plaque next to the tree which reads, ‘This oak tree was planted by Women’s Suffrage Organisations in Glasgow on 20 April 1918 to commemorate the granting of votes to women’. The oak won Scottish Tree of the Year in 2015, nominated by the Glasgow Women’s Library who feature it as a stop on their West End Heritage walk. While sadly damaged and much reduced by Storm Ophelia in 2017, the tree is still standing and will hopefully weather future storms. Glasgow City Council donated the storm damaged oak cuttings to the Glasgow Women’s Library.

 

I first noticed the oak wandering up Kelvin Way many years ago thanks to the plaque and often wondered who were the women that planted this tree. It seems fitting that for the centenary of its planting we should learn their names and more about that Saturday in Kelvingrove Park.

Image of Louisa Lumsden in her St Leonard robes from her autobiography Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (1933), p.178

In Louisa Lumsden’s autobiography, Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (1933), she mentions the event briefly and tells us it was presided over by Frances Melville (1973-1962) with the thanks offered by Eunice Guthrie Murray (1878-1960). Lumsden, 78 years of age at the time, had come down from Aberdeen to plant the tree. She was a pioneer of higher education having been one of five women who attend Girton College, Cambridge in 1869 and was a lifelong advocate for girls and women’s education. At one point, she was the Headmistress of St Leonard’s School in St Andrews where Eunice Murray was educated. In 1908, Lumsden was invited to become the president of the Aberdeen Suffrage Society (a branch of National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). She agreed as long as it did not take up too much of her time but she soon ‘found that little time was left for anything else’.[2] In her autobiography she recalls loaning the suffrage movement her caravan so they could do a kind of suffragists on tour with key figures such as Millicent Fawcett and Elise Ingis. Lumsden described herself as a constitutional suffragist and felt they were fighting a battle on two fronts with the militant suffragettes and the anti-suffragists. As we have seen throughout this year of #vote100, the distinction and tensions between suffragists and suffragettes has been highlighted (see WHS suffrage resource). The event in Glasgow was a ‘joint celebration by Women’s Suffrage Societies’.[3] A meeting after the tree planting was held Queen’s Rooms. Tickets were 6d and could be purchased from either Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a suffragist society, or the Women’s Freedom League, a suffragette association. After a bit of digging it has become clearer that the suffragists and suffragettes were united in this celebration.[4] The presence of figures from all sides of the Suffrage Movement, both militant and constitutional, indicates that this was intended to unite and celebrate the legacy of all women who fought for the vote.

Image: Queen’s Rooms, Clifton Street, Glasgow (opposite Kelvingrove Park). The location of the Suffrage Celebration meeting on Saturday 20th April 2018. Chaired by Chrystal MacMillan. © Yvonne McFadden

The planting of the Suffrage Oak in Kelvin Way was a collaborative event bring together multiple suffrage groups in recognition of this great step forward for women. The Glasgow Herald reported the event was organised by the Glasgow Society of Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Universities Suffrage Union, Women’s Freedom League, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise and United Suffragists.[5] The tree planting ceremony was presided over by Frances Melville who was the Mistress of Queen Margaret College, Glasgow and a member of the Scottish Universities Suffrage Union. She was a suffragist and an advocate for women’s higher education. One of the first women to matriculate at Edinburgh University in 1892, Melville was the first woman in Scotland to be awarded a Bachelor of Divinity in 1910 from St Andrews. It was reported that Melville’s speech at the planting of the oak explained the choice of memorial:

‘The Enfranchisement of women would bring new life into the body politic, and therefore it was most appropriate to plant in commemoration a living and growing thing’

She also payed tribute to the role of early suffragists work to the ‘women and men who had so long and loyally upheld the cause – especially those of the older generation, who had worked so splendidly for the cause in its earlier days.’

Frances Melville, Mistress of Queen Margaret College, Glasgow. [source: https://universityofglasgowlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/frances-melville.jpg]

The vote of thanks was offered by Eunice Gurthrie Murray, who later that year would be the first woman in Scotland to stand as a candidate in a parliamentary election for Bridgeton. She was a lawyer from Cardross in Dunbartonshire and a prominent figure within the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL broke away from the Women’s Political and Social Union, unhappy with the Pankhurst heavy handed centralised control. Murray wrote, ‘I do not like the Pankhursts much, but I declare I bow to their spirit.’[6] Murray was herself arrested twice for addressing public meetings but not charged or imprisoned. She took part in WSPU processions in London and Edinburgh in 1910. A lifelong activist for women’s rights, Murray wrote extensively on the position of women in society. At the Kelvingrove celebration, she was reported to have said:

‘no woman looking back on the long fight for the suffrage could not help being glad she was a suffragist.’

Murray emphasised that women were ready and prepared to take on the responsibility of governance.

The vote of thanks was offered by Eunice Gurthrie Murray, who sat on the nation committee for the Women’s Freedom League.

The celebrations acknowledged the underlying tension of the 1918 enfranchisement in that only some women were now entitled to vote. Where all men over 21 years of age became enfranchised, it was only women over 30 who met the property qualification who could now vote. The events and speeches of the day addressed this and while 1918 was a huge step forward for women there was still work to be done. Later, at the meeting in the Queen’s Rooms, the chair Chrystal MacMillan was reported in the Glasgow Herald as stating that:

‘in celebrating this victory of women’s suffrage they were cognisant of the fact that many women were not included, and while they rejoice in the franchisement of women over 30, they hoped it would not be too long before other women were also enfranchised.’

Louisa Lumsden’s wisdom to young women who felt ‘bitterly’ about their exclusion was to ‘[h]ave patience, prepare yourselves; you cannot be too good for the opportunities that many come in the future’.

The oak tree is a symbol of reconciliation between all sides of the suffrage movement, it was a reminder that women must continue to grow women’s rights. After 1918, women organised themselves into various associations to campaign on issues including equal citizenship, women’s welfare and housing rights.[7] The Glasgow Society for Equal Citizenship held a regular commemorative dinner every year to celebrate the 1918 achievement. Prominent Scottish feminists were regular attendees including Marion Gilchrist, Elsie Inglis, Eunice Murray, Marion Buchanan and Frances Melville. These feminists continued to fight, campaign and advocate for women’s rights in all areas of society long after the vote was won. The Suffrage Oak is a physical commemoration to the legacy of the suffrage movement but it also is a reminder that the fight for women’s rights is a living and breathing movement that needs to be nurtured and maintained. I think Louisa Lumsden, Frances Melville and Eunice Murray would be proud of what their daughters and granddaughters have achieved in the hundred years since they planted their tree and to know that the Oak still inspires girls and women today to continue the fight for equality for all women.

Page signed by attendees of the Glasgow Society for Equal Citizenship Society Commemorative Dinner, 1938 including Frances Melville, Eunice Murray, Marion Gilchrist and others. Part of the Marion Buchanan Collection at the Glasgow Women’s Library.

Yvonne McFadden


Further Reading

WHS Suffrage Resource – https://womenssuffragescotland.wordpress.com

On the Suffrage movement in Aberdeeen see Sarah Pedersen, ‘The Conciliatory Sufragette’ http://womenshistoryscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/5-The-Conciliatory-Suffragette.pdf

Frances Melville – http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH0222&type=P

Eunice Murray – http://www.helensburgh-heritage.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=897:from-suffragette-to-councillor&catid=39:people-&Itemid=399

Louisa Lumsden, (1933) Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (William Blackwoods and sons: Edinburgh & London) https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015064809927;view=1up;seq=11


Notes

[1] Daily Record, 22nd April 1918, p.3

[2] Louisa Lumsden, (1933) Yellow Leaves: Memories of a Long Life (William Blackwoods and sons: Edinburgh & London), p. 170 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015064809927;view=1up;seq=11

[3] Daily Record, Public Notices, 19th April, 1918

[4] This is unsurprising as Sarah Pederson has shown networks and friendships between both sides were not uncommon despite their disagreement over methods.

[5] Glasgow Herald, 22nd April 1918, p.6

[6] Diary of Eunice Guthrie Murray: Volume 2

[7] See our suffrage resource for more information on these associations

Women as active citizens: politics and feminism in interwar Scotland

Suffrage in Dundee: WHS Suffrage Learning Resource launch event, 10 March 2018

Featured

On Saturday 10th of March as part of Dundee Women’s Festival Women’s History Scotland officially launched it’s new learning resource:

THE WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT IN SCOTLAND, 1867-1928: A LEARNING RESOURCE

We were fortunate to have such welcoming and supporting hosts in Dundee’s Central Library in the Wellgate with Maureen Hood and her team providing display materials from ‘Voteless not Voiceless‘ an exhibition held in the library a few years ago.

The launch was very well attended and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for both the online learning resource and learning more about the history of the suffrage movement in Dundee. In fact it turns out that Dundee could not have been a better place to hold the launch given the richness of the existing history of women in the city.

Following a brief introduction on our motivations for creating the resource and a tour of what information it contained, Esther Breitenbach of the WHS steering committeee gave an overview of the suffrage movement in Scotland, emphasising the long-run nature of the campaign for enfranchisement in Scotland and the differing demands of various groups of women. Central to this is the difference between suffragists and suffragettes: Suffragists used peaceful constitutional methods to make their case that women should have the vote on the same terms on men, and suffragist groups included the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The suffragettes on the other hand advocated militant action and were largely members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Numerically there were far more suffragists than suffragettes and yet it is the suffragettes that live on in popular memory of the campaign for the vote. Esther also spoke of the early organisation of women in favour of the suffrage cause in Dundee and women’s involvement in political parties and activity in the city.

Norman Watson, journalist and author of several books on women’s history in Dundee including the soon to be reissued Dundee’s Suffragettes: Their Remarkable Struggle to Win Votes for Women then spoke very authoritatively and engagingly on the activities of members of the WSPU and WFL in Dundee such as Ethel Moorehead, Lila Clunas and Agnes Husband. Drawing on his vast collection of postcards, suffrage memorabilia, not to mention extensive knowledge, we all learned a great deal about the reasons why there was comparatively more suffrage activity in Dundee. Central to this was the fact that the then Prime Minister’s constituency was in East Fife and Winston Churchill was standing Liberal MP for Dundee in 1908. At this point Churchill was a rising star in the party, President of the Board of Trade and would go on to be Home Secretary in 1910. As a result Dundee was a high profile constituency and thus a strategic target of suffragette militancy. One of the most famous disrupting strategy was taken by Mary Maloney a member of the WSPU who would ring a bell every time Churchill addressed a crowd in Dundee (see image above). Nearby Perth prison also became notorious as this was where suffragettes were sent to be force-fed in Scotland. The WSPU rented a flat across from the prison so that members could sing songs and chants of solidarity with those imprisoned.

If you would like a more in-depth account of Dundee’s suffragette history look out for the publication of Norman’s book later this year.

Following a tea and coffee break, with refreshments generously provided by Dundee Central Library, historian Kenneth Baxter gave a presentation on the political representation of women in Dundee, which from 1918 to c. 1955 lagged behind the other major cities in Scotland. Dundonians were slow to elect their first female Councillor and first female MP. It was interesting to hear more about the women who were elected, their careers and political priorities in the city. While there is no one definitive answer to explain the relative lack of female elected representatives in Dundee given the city’s reputation as a women’s town, we had a good discussion with many suggestions from those attending the event.

The official launch of the online learning resource was a great success and we are keen to hold similar events throughout Scotland. If you are part of a local history or community group and would like to know more about the suffrage movement in your area please get in touch by emailing: info@womenshistoryscotland.org

Valerie Wright (University of Glasgow)

Out Gallivanting – ‘Scottish Suffragettes’ talk by Prof Sarah Pedersen at Inverurie Library, 29 Jan 2018.

Having failed to get tickets to Sarah Pedersen’s talk on the suffragettes in Aberdeen’s Central Library and then failed to get tickets for the “repeated by popular demand” talk last year, I was delighted to finally hear  her talk in Inverurie Library tonight.  Like all her talks so far, this one was fully booked well in advance.  I took my goddaughter, Kenzi, who has been studying the suffragettes as part of her Nat 5 History curriculum.

Kenzi and I both enjoyed the talk; it was a comprehensive overview of suffragette activity in Scotland for Kenzi, whilst including many details which were new to me.   I particularly liked the photographs of Helen Fraser addressing an all-male crowd of farmers at a mart in Laurencekirk, images which Sarah pointed out were probably the source of some caricatures of strident suffragettes.

Kenzi and I were both particularly interested in Caroline Phillips, our most local suffragette, and so it was a huge bonus to discover that the Heritage Lottery funding which has enabled Sarah to give these talks also provided a free book Caroline Phillips:Aberdeen Suffragette and Journalist for each attendee!

You can also find out more on Sarah’s blog ‘Scottish Suffragettes’ about her Heritage Lottery funded project ‘The Suffragettes in North East Scotland’.

Alison McCall (WHS Convener)