June 2014 – Guest Blogger Esther Breitenbach

Esther Breitenbach is a committee member of Women’s History Scotland, and has written widely about the lives of women in Scotland, both from the perspective of contemporary politics and policy and on historical themes. She is co-editor, with Linda Fleming, S. Karly Kehoe and Lesley Orr, of Scottish Women: A Documentary History, 1780-1914 (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

If you are interested in arranging a talk on Scottish Women, please get in touch at Esther.Breitenbach@ed.ac.uk

Our recent publication, Scottish Women: A Documentary History, 1780-1914 was a Women’s History Scotland project, with this sourcebook providing a companion volume to the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh University Press, 2006). It is the first sourcebook on Scottish women in this period, it draws on a wide range of source materials from across Scotland, and it provides new insights into women’s lives. Thematic chapters cover: bodies and health; the home and domestic life; work and working conditions; crime and immorality; religion; politics and protest; and experiences of empire. Since its publication the editors have given public talks and seminar presentations about the book – in this blog, I am taking the opportunity to offer some reflections on the challenges on finding sources written by women, and on some of the gaps in women’s history in this period.

A key aim of the book was that it should reflect women’s voices and the majority of primary source extracts were authored by women – but it was not always possible to find women writing about issues we considered important to include. So, in some cases, we quote male commentators, court records, and newspapers to shed light on various aspects of women’s lives. Scarcity of sources in which women’s perspectives were directly articulated was primarily a question of class – working-class women’s voices can be hard to find. But some categories of middle-class women remain in the shadows – marital status appears to be one of the factors influencing this. Furthermore, certain kinds of actions, for example, crimes and transgressive behaviour – although the subject of much reporting, sensationalising, moral panic and social comment – are seldom recounted by their perpetrators. While court records provide a good source of information on these, and include the statements of women as accused or witnesses, these inevitably provide far more examples of working-class offenders than of middle-class women breaking laws or moral codes. The private lives of women, too, remain in relative obscurity – whether sexual lives, personal relationships, or even correspondence between women emigrants and families and friends at home. This is not to say that no sources of this kind exist, but rather that historians should be alert to such gaps, and sometimes may have to think creatively to find ways of uncovering evidence.

If scarcity was a challenge in certain areas, abundance of sources presented a challenge in others. This was most notably the case in the voluminous literature on domestic management and household advice, and in women’s religious writing across a variety of genres from fiction, poetry and didactic literature such as pamphlets and tracts, to hymns, biblical stories, and letters, journals and memoirs for private circulation. Even so, such abundant source material has not always been effectively used for the many insights it provides into women’s role in Scottish society. In addition, it remains a challenge to separate out the ideological and normative discourses of women’s roles from how they actually conducted themselves – arguably the failure to adequately make such distinctions accounts for the continuing, and often uncritical, reproduction of the idea of ‘separate spheres’ and of ‘Victorian domestic ideology’ as reflecting lived reality.

In the Oxford Companion to Scottish History (2001), edited by Michael Lynch, it was commented that women’s history was hampered by a problem of evidence, particularly in periods earlier than the nineteenth century, which at that time had fared best as far as Scottish women’s history was concerned. It is probably still true that the nineteenth century has been the focus of most work in Scottish women’s history, though it is good to note the growth of work in other periods, as outlined in Katie Barclay, Tanya Cheadle and Eleanor Gordon’s very useful review of the literature in ‘The State of Scottish History: Gender’ in the supplement to the Scottish Historical Review, published in 2013. Yet, as they comment, there are still large gaps in the historiography, and there is scant employment of gender as a category of analysis by Scottish historians other than those in gender history.

Indeed, I was struck, when working on the introductory chapter to Scottish Women, both by the fact that there were still large gaps in nineteenth century historical writing on women/gender, and that there are relatively few historians who have built up a body of work in Scottish women’s/gender history of this period, although many more have made contributions as part of their work. Among other things, this may say something about the shape of academic careers and gender balance of history departments. It was clear, however, that some of the major gaps were not just gaps in women’s/gender history, but more general gaps. For example, one relatively neglected area is that of crime, criminal justice, policing, and prison policy – although it is good to note ongoing work in this area, which Louise Jackson brought to our attention. Another example is the area of politics and public life, which, as far as women are concerned, has had intermittent but not systematic attention. My recent involvement in providing material for our WHS event for schools as part of the Previously Scotland’s History Festival last November – ‘Women, the Great War and the Vote’ – made me further aware of the possibilities for more research surrounding women’s involvement in political parties from the late nineteenth century onwards. This includes the whole area of local politics, local government and the extension of the municipal franchise, afforded to some women electors in the late nineteenth century, a topic which at best has received only a few passing mentions. Linda Fleming’s chapter on ‘Bodies, Sexuality and Health’ presented real challenges in the absence of a Scottish-focused secondary literature and in its aim to break new ground beyond histories relating to medical professions and using medical and health records. Disappointingly too, research on women’s work outside the home has witnessed only limited development beyond Eleanor Gordon’s Women and the Labour Movement in Scotland (1991) and our joint collection, The World is Ill-Divided (1990). So, there is much to be done – hopefully Scottish Women provides some of the tools for the task through identifying a range of source materials and also where they are hard to find.

I think we can argue that Scottish Women establishes women’s presence in many public debates and forms of collective organisation and action, as well as shedding light on aspects of their private lives. Where it is hard to locate women’s voices, this should not be taken to mean they were not present – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – and the employment of other methods and sources is likely to uncover more evidence of the nature of women’s lives. We hope that the collection will be useful in teaching, and that it will help to stimulate new research – not just in women’s or gender history – but also that it might prompt historians in general to ask the question about women’s role or involvement, and whether their presence or attitudes makes a difference to our understanding of Scottish society and social change.



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