Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks Gordon


Countess then Marchioness, of Aberdeen (and Temair), 1857-1939

by William James Topley.

Ishbel, commonly referred to after her marriage in 1877 to John Campbell Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen, as the Countess of Aberdeen, was born the third of five children and the second daughter of an ambitious and wealthy family with connections to Scotland and India. As a teenager she was deeply influenced by the Protestant social gospel, as evident for example in the early settlement house movement, and determined to apply its message of hard work and individual responsibility to her own life. Barred from Girton College, Cambridge, by her family’s determination that she marry well, she nevertheless had tutors who ensured her fluency in French and German and she took up a lifetime of self-education. The union with John Gordon placed her in top aristocratic circles but it was always a love match and came to be known in international feminist circles as an ideal marriage of well-matched activists (Rupp). The birth of five children and the loss of one in infancy encouraged a strong interest in children’s welfare but women’s education, health, and employment opportunities soon emerged at the top of her agenda, first on her own Scottish estates, then in Great Britain more generally, and then in Canada and the world. Ishbel learned her political lessons in the campaigns for women’s representation in local government and in the Scottish and English Women’s Liberal Federations, important campaigners for the suffrage, in the 1880s and 1890s. She always tried to find the path of consensus and regularly counseled education and patience. She prioritized the fate of the British Liberal Party and the Irish Home Rule movement above that of suffrage, arguing that the well-being of both the former would guarantee in time a better deal for women. That position irritated feminists such as the Scot, Priscilla Bright McLaren, and the American May Wright Sewall, who made the suffrage their major target. In 1893, in response to the recognition by its founders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, that suffrage needed to recruit from a wider constituency of more conservative women, Ishbel Gordon became the president of the International Council of Women, founded in 1888. She soon proved a forceful and effective organizer, becoming in the process in 1893 also the first president of the National Council of Women of Canada, where she was until 1898 as the consort of Lord Aberdeen, Governor-General. Canadian suffragists like Augusta Stowe Gullen welcomed her arrival in the conservative Dominion where even the middle-of-the-road Council remained controversial. It did not endorse suffrage until 1910. Ishbel was also the critical figure in the founding of Canada’s Victorian Order of Nurses in 1898. Returning to the UK, she resumed work with the Liberal Party and went to Ireland with John who was Viceroy 1905-1915. Sewall became president of the ICW in 1899 but Ishbel took the post up again in 1904 and remained president almost continuously until 1936. In the 1930s she was a determined supporter of the League of Nations and critic of fascism. There is considerable debate about her role as an aristocratic liberal imperialist, someone who believed deeply in the civilizing mission of women and of the British Empire (Sangster; McLeish). It is fair to describe her, as her contemporaries sometimes did, as an ‘autocrat-democrat’. The question remains: who could have done a better job in connecting women of diverse opinions who faced patriarchy in various forms all around the world?

Resources & Further Reading

Aberdeen [J. C. Gordon], Lord and Lady Aberdeen [I. M. Gordon]. 1925 and 1927. We twa, 2 vols. London: W. Collins.

Barbour, G. F. and Matthew Urie Baird, ‘Gordon, John Campbell, first marquess of Aberdeen and Temair (1847–1934)’, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 20 Jan 2012] . This includes Ishbel Marjoribanks.

Bloomhower, Ray E. 2001. But I Do Clamor: May Wright Sewall, A Life, 1844-1920. Zionsville: Guild Press of Indiana.

McLeish, Val. 2006. “Sunshine and sorrows : Canada, Ireland and Lady Aberdeen,” Colonial Lives across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. David Lambert and Alan Lester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milligan, Edward H. 2004. ‘McLaren, Priscilla Bright (1815–1906)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [, accessed 20 Jan 2012]

Pentland, Marjorie. 1952. A Bonnie Fechter: the Life of Ishbel Marjoribanks, marchioness of Aberdeen & Temair, CBE, LLD, JP, 1857 to 1939. London: Batsford.

Pugh, Martin. 2000. The March of the Women. A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage, 1866-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rupp, Leila. 1997. “Sexuality and Politics in the early Twentieth century: the Case of the International Women’s Movement” Feminist Studies 23:3. Autumn, 1997. 577-605

Sangster, Joan. 2007. “Crossing Boundaries: Women’s Organizing in Europe and the Americas, 1880s-1940s,” in P. Jonsson, S. Neusinger, J. Sangster, eds. Crossing Boundaries: Women’s Organizing in Europe and the Americas, 1880s–1940s. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Studies in Economic History 80.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."