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Agenda: For Scottish women, notions of nationhood are far from limiting

Nations and nation states have long been identified by gendered symbols.

France has Marianne, Germany has Germania, Britain has Britannia. The woman-as-nation iconography seems to be so powerful because woman is associated with home, as mother of the race, bearer of culture, embodiment of virtue.

But nationalist movements are often characterised as sites of masculine domination, limiting women's participation in movements for national liberation to their role as guardians of the traditional order. For most of the modern period, when democratic revolution and political reform awarded citizenship rights to men, women were excluded. The nation as woman figure is a passive symbol, dressed up in national garb, an abstract muse or allegory but not an active participant in her nation's destiny. Scotland has been represented as a female figure (Caledonia and Dame Scotia) but, as the twentieth-century writer Willa Muir commented, "Scotland as a nation has been for so long a 'puir auld mither' that Scottish mothers are likely to have a fellow feeling for her", implying that women's oppression by men was akin to Scotland's oppression by England.

For some women the nation state was the embodiment of patriarchy. Virginia Woolf's much quoted refrain, "as a woman I have no country", summed up the tensions she identified in her (and women's) desire to leave behind the stifling domesticity of the private sphere and an unwillingness to throw in her lot with the world of men characterised by "its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed". In 1938, when Woolf was writing, the military, industrial, patriarchal nation state was not a club she wished to join.

Scottish women's identification with nation was not as clear-cut as Woolf's rejection of it. In the feminist arena, Scottish women often trumpeted their distinctive identity as Scots, particularly when their London-based "sisters" in the suffrage campaign threatened to play down national differences. The slogan "you maunna tramp on the Scots thistle laddie" was adopted by Scottish suffragettes as a war cry and the 1908 Edinburgh suffrage march featured a pageant of great Scots female historical fugures: Flora Macdonald, the Covenanting martyrs, Jenny Geddes.

At the same time, Scotswomen campaigning for women's rights saw themselves as part of a wider cause: British and international.They were continuing in the vein of the Scottish female Chartists for whom the fight for democratic political reform was conceived under the umbrella of class solidarity with their sisters and brothers across the British Isles.

Many Scottish women's organisations had links with international networks concerning women's democratic representation, regulation of prostitution, child abuse, birth control, maternal and child welfare and trade union organisation as well as peace.

For some, like the Edinburgh socialist, feminist and pacifist Chrystal Macmillan, internationalism was the means by which she pursued her anti-militarist and feminist aims, attending the Women's International Congress at The Hague in 1915 and in Zurich in 1919, after which she campaigned for a less punitive peace at the Paris Peace Conference.

For others, like Lady Aberdeen, international work (through the International Council of Women which she chaired three times between 1893 and 1936) was a means by which improvements in women's lives could be achieved across a range of issues including the cause of peace.

At the same time, though, she never forgot her Scottish roots: her attention ranged from campaigning for improving female farm servants' conditions in her adopted Aberdeenshire to achieving the ordination of women to the Church of Scotland ministry.

Scottish women have not been content to be associated solely with the local, the domestic, the private. They have used the nation as a springboard for engagement in international concerns. Scottish women are no longer "puir auld mithers", if they ever were.

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