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 [, accessed 19 Jan 2012]

Bebbington, D.W. 2004. ‘Drummond, Henry (1851–1897)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. online edn, May 2007 [, 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.


Lady Isabella Caroline Somers-Cocks Somerset

Born London, UK, 1851; died 1921; temperance, social purity and suffrage activist; President British Women’s Temperance Association (1890); editor of the BWTA journal Woman’s Signal; friend of American temperance leader, Frances Willard;

 Further reading:

Ian Tyrrell, ‘Somerset , Lady Isabel Caroline [Lady Henry Somerset] (1851–1921)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [

K. Fitzpatrick, Lady Henry Somerset (London: Jonathan Cape, 1923)

I. Tyrrell, Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in international perspective, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)

Rosalind Frances Howard (Countess of Carlisle)

Born 1845 Cheshire, UK; died London, UK, 1921; represented the ‘radical left’ of Britain’s feminist aristocrats; leader in British temperance and suffrage causes and the Women’s Liberal Federation.

Further reading: 

David M. Fahey, ‘Howard , Rosalind Frances, countess of Carlisle (1845–1921)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn,

K.D. Reynolds, Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

I. Tyrrell, Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in international perspective, 1880–1930 (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)