John Campbell Gordon

Earl of Aberdeen and Temair (1847-1934)

Library and Archives of Canada.

Library and Archives of Canada.

The Earl of Aberdeen has been best known as the British Viceroy of Ireland (1886; 1905-1915) and Governor General of Canada (1893-96). His grandfather, Lord Aberdeen, had been prime minister of the United Kingdom and his family were leading landlords in eastern Scotland. Deaths of a father and two older brothers brought him unexpectedly to the title in 1870. This Gordon was also a Victorian and Edwardian feminist and suffragist. He developed that allegiance as a result of his evangelical, scientific, and political faith and his marriage to Ishbel Marjoribanks (1857-1939) in 1877. A progressive Presbyterian, he was deeply influenced by the social gospel of his day and a supporter of foreign and domestic missions, settlement houses, urban renewal, children’s welfare, and labour unions. Like many in his age, he was also fascinated by scientific discovery. Particularly important for him was the apparently happy reconciliation by contemporaries, such as the influential Scottish theologian and his good friend, Henry Drummond, of Darwinian evolutionary theory with a faith in divine love and the potential of human altruism, especially as the latter was embodied in women. In the 1870s he emerged as a member of the Liberal Party led by William Gladstone (not a suffragist) and soon made his name as a reformer, friend of feminist causes, and supporter of Irish Home Rule. The latter was the cause to which above all he devoted his life until forced to retire from his Irish post in 1915. Marriage to the talented and energetic Ishbel, soon herself a force in the English and Scottish Women’s Liberal Federations and a proponent of women in local government, produced one of the most prominent reform-minded couples in Great Britain, on a part with the union of suffragists Henry and Millicent Fawcett. He was, as Leila Rupp has demonstrated widely admired by international feminists as a ‘new man’ and the Aberdeen marriage as a model of affection and equality. In explicitly feminist politics, he often stood in Ishbel’s shadow but he was also co-President of the Mothers’ Union of the United Kingdom, which also emphasized the role of fathers, and president of the National Vigilance Association, which opposed prostitution and insisted on purity for both sexes. Aberdeen maintained a deep conviction that education and conciliation were the best way to bring about understanding between different classes, races, and women and men. This philosophy drove his earnest devotion to Home Rule and to liberal imperialism more generally and allowed him to believe that women suffrage was inevitable. In any case, he feared that divisions over female enfranchisement would wreck the fragile political coalition in favour of representative and responsible government for Ireland. It also meant that he opposed suffragette militancy. In British terminology, he was a moderate constitutionalist in suffrage matters.

 

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. 2004. ‘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 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/article/33464, accessed 19 Jan 2012]

Bebbington, D.W. 2004. ‘Drummond, Henry (1851–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/article/8068, accessed 19 Jan 2012]

John, Angela V. and Claire Eustance. 1997. The Men’s Share?: Masculinities, Male Support, and Women’s Suffrage in Britain, 1890-1920. London: Routledge.

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.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. [forthcoming] Kind Hearts and Coronets: the Liberal Politics of Lord and Lady Aberdeeni.

 

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 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/article/33464, 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. [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/article/47643, 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.

Women’s Social and Political Union

Active in Britain c 1903-1914; major militant suffrage group; formed in Manchester, England, at home of Emmeline Pankhurst; included many socialist and working-class women; activists included Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Dora Montefiore, Ursula Bright, and Hannah Mitchel; journal Votes for Women.

Further reading:

Sandra Stanley Holton, ‘Women’s Social and Political Union (act. 1903–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/view/theme/95579, accessed 20 Nov 2011]

E. Crawford, Women’s suffrage movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey (NY: Routledge, 2005)

S. S. Holton, Feminism and democracy: women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

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

S. S. Holton, Suffrage days: stories from the women’s suffrage movement (London: Routledge, 1996)

S. S. Holton, ‘“In sorrowful wrath”: suffrage militancy and the romantic feminism of Emmeline Pankhurst’, British feminism in the twentieth century, ed. Harold L. Smith (Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 7–24

J. Liddington and J. Norris, One hand tied behind us: the rise of the women’s suffrage movement (London: Virago, 1978); new edn (2000)

J. Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography (London: Routledge, 2002)

A. Rosen, Rise up, women! The militant campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903–1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974)

A. Morley and L. Stanley, The life and death of Emily Wilding Davison (London: Women’s Press, 1988)

L. Tickner, The spectacle of women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907–14 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)