Its been a 100 years since the suffragettes won their cause and some women were allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections. However women have been able to vote for much longer than this. They were able to vote for and serve on School Boards since they were created in 1872. Since 1882 if women paid rates (like the modern Council Tax) they could vote for Dundee Town Councillors, an since 1894 female ratepayers could also vote for and stand for the parish council. The ability to vote was all based on property ownership or rental. Although technically on a par with men, if a woman was married or living with parents or another family member, she would not pay rates and therefore couldn’t vote. This meant that still few women could vote. But they could stand for election.
Here we celebrate the first women elected to Local Government in Dundee.
Agnes was born on 20 May 1852 in Tayport, her father was a master mariner. She was a dressmaker by trade and ran a business with her sister Catherine, or Kitty, at 107 Murraygate. She was heavily involved in politics and first stood as a candidate for the School Board in the 1890s. After standing for many elections she was finally elected to the Dundee Parish Council in 1901, alongside Mary Lily Walker. She also made it on to the School Board in 1906. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party, in 1906 she joined the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union, in 1909 she joined the Women’s Freedom League. She was also a committee member of the Dundee Social Union. In 1918 she was one of the founder members of the Dundee Women’s Citizens Association, formed to encourage women to vote and to get more women standing for election. Agnes was an ardent campaigner for better education and care of children, and for improvements in the treatment of the poor. She served on the Parish Council until 1922 and the School Board until 1928 when she had to retire due to ill health. She died on 30 April 1929.
Agnes was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dundee in 1926 – only the 5th woman to receive the honour. The first was Mariote Ker in 1529 – the first female burgess in Scotland. We don’t really know who she was or why James IV gave her the freedom of the city. A Burgess was a person who had been awarded certain freedoms to trade within a city, by the 19th century this was largely a ceremonial award. The next three female burgesses were: Helen Haliburton in 1899 for donating money to the libraries and other philanthropic acts; Maybell, the dowager Countess of Airlie was given the freedom in 1902; and Mrs Emma Marryat, civic donator for the Marryat Hall, became a burgess in 1918. Agnes was the first woman to be rewarded for her civic life rather than her philanthropic wealth or social status. A portrait of Agnes normally hangs in the corridor just outside the City Archives, but she is currently on display at the McManus Museum and Art Gallery.
Mary Lily Walker
Born to a solicitor and his wife in 1863, Mary had a comfortable childhood and was undoubtedly very smart. She attended Dundee High School and was one of the first to enrol at the new Dundee College, now the University of Dundee. She excelled at her studies and became good friends with one of her tutors – D’Arcy Thompson. Mary joined the Dundee Social Union – which was set up to try and improve the appalling living conditions of the poor in Dundee. After a spell in London, she returned to Dundee to set up Grey’s Lodge. In 1901 she was elected to the Parish Council, becoming the first woman to be so, along with Agnes Husband. Frustrated with the lack of action and cooperation of her male colleagues she continued to work outside the council. She remained a councillor until her death in 1913.
In 1904 she produced the DSU’s report into Housing Conditions and the Medical Inspection of Children. The results of this report shocked the people of Dundee and helped catalyse a lot of action in the City. We hold a copy of the report in the Archives. Of particular interest are the example households from 4 types of housing blocks. We think Block A was Robertson’s Land, otherwise known as the Blue Mountains. It took another 20 years to demolish that slum.
Mrs Lillias (Lily) Binnie Miller nee MacDonald
Lily MacDonald was born in Shettleston, Glasgow. At the time of her birth in 1882, Shettleston was a small town 3 miles outside of Glasgow. At the age of 19, as recorded in the 1901 census, she was working as a Checker in a Biscuit Factory, alongside her younger sister Margaret. We’re not sure exactly when she moved to Dundee, but it was before 1922. In February that year she married Peter Miller, a Commercial Traveller of 15 Bellefield Avenue. He was a widower, and had several children from his first marriage. Lily had been living at 6 Forfar Road and was a Biscuit Factory Manager. She probably worked at the James Couttie & Sons factory on Albert Street, just down the road from where she lived.
In November 1922, the same year she was married, she was elected to the Parish Council in Ward 9. She served her 3 year term but narrowly missed out on being re-elected in 1925. She then turned her attentions to the Town Council. She stood for election in Ward 2 in the years 1926, 1927 and 1929. In 1931 she stands again, but in Ward 9. She keeps trying in Ward 9 in 1932, 1933 and 1934, but she was finally elected in 1935 for the newly formed Ward 12, covering the Hilltown area. Lily was a socialist and was elected during a period of swing towards socialist candidates in Dundee. Out of the three councillors elected from the ward, Lily had the most votes.
She was the convener of the Education Committee in 1936, Justice of the Peace from 1937, and a Bailie from 1945. In November 1946 she publicly complained about having to wear her Bailie’s hat in church. It was tradition that men were allowed to remove their hat in church but women had to keep theirs on. To remove their hats would be a breach of etiquette. Lily and Mrs Holway, another Bailie, complained that when they sat in the church pews, the point at the back of the hat forced the hat off or over their eyes. Baillie Quinn wrote the issue off as a ‘woman’s whim’. Despite their protestations no replacement hat was made. Lily was also a member of the Scottish Health Visitors Association, served as the emergency office for youth for the Scottish Central Council for Juvenile Organisations and chair of the Girl Guides Executive Committee. She retired from the council in 1953, after 18 years of service.