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Response to Review no. 563

The editors would like to thank Valerie Wright for her generous review and the way in which she highlights many of the aims we hope to achieve with the publication of The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. We would like to take the opportunity provided by this response to expand a little on her review by mentioning one or two more of its intentions.

As Wright points out, several different categories of women are included in the book. As well as providing entries for the ‘eminent’ women, those who tend to be the staple of most biographical dictionaries, we felt that it was vitally important to include some ‘women who were not remotely famous, but whose story in some way represented areas of Scottish life or economy, where women were generally present but rarely individually recorded’ (p. xxxi). This is discussed at more length in the introduction to the dictionary, but readers will find among the entries the lives of a herring gutter, an East Coast fishwife, a Shetland knitter, a coalminer and a bondager, to name just a few. By including such lives, we hope to raise questions about what constitutes ‘fame’ and ‘contribution to history’ and the ways in which such concepts can be gendered.

It is difficult to pigeonhole women, as Wright points out, and this is reflected in the fact that in the thematic index there are many instances of women being listed under a number of different categories, not just one or two. The aim is to encourage readers to think about the way in which gender shapes a woman’s life-course, and to examine the inadequacy of a standard male career-path model as a reflection of the complexity of women’s lives (and perhaps of men’s lives as well). Hence the inclusion of the precise genealogical details, which Wright mentions, as well as the impact of child-bearing where relevant. This issue is discussed more fully in L. Abrams et al eds. Gender in Scottish History (Edinburgh, 2006) a book that from the beginning was intended by Women’s History Scotland to act as a companion volume to The Biographical Dictionary.

The thematic index is also intended to encourage researchers to explore links between women in similar fields. A further tool to enable such linking is provided in the cross-referencing of entries. When a subject is mentioned in another biographical entry, an asterisk indicates that she has her own entry. In this way, readers will be able to recreate their own networks of interconnected lives, often hidden by changes in surname.

Wright also pertinently raises the issue of Scottish identity, a topic of much recent discussion. Who counts as ‘Scottish’? For the purposes of this project, we defined Scottish women as those who were ‘born in Scotland; or… lived in Scotland for an appreciable period; or… influenced some aspect of Scottish national life’ (p. xxv). Many queens of Scotland, to take just one example, were born far from Scotland. Conversely, some women are included who were born in Scotland but whose main impact was felt in the Scottish diaspora, especially the Commonwealth, as representative of the strong influence which Scots have exercised outside their native country. (We did however exclude women whose claim to Scottishness came only through their parentage, partly for practical reasons.) We hope that reading these varied lives will encourage users of the dictionary to reflect on what issues of national identity mean for women, who in the course of their lives take on not just different names but often different national identities.

Finally, we hope that users of The Biographical Dictionary will regard this volume as a reference work and starting-point for further research into the lives of individual women, whether included in its pages or not. The true measure of its success will lie in the extent to which the history of women in Scotland becomes in the future an inextricable part of Scottish history as a whole.