Following International Women’s Day on 8 March, it is vital to reflect on the powerful historical figures who have paved the way in the fight for gender equality. While we are aware of major feminist activists, such as the suffragettes, there are many individuals who do not appear in the pages of our history books; their roles were often hidden, but extremely vital, in the ongoing battle for a more egalitarian society. This is certainly the case for several women involved in the Scottish Periodical Press, individuals who were discussed by Juliet Shields at an event at the National Library of Scotland last week.
Shields is a Fulbright Scholar and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. She specialises in 18th and 19th century British and American literature, taking a particular interest in the role of women in journalism. In her discussion, Shields focused on three women who took the disadvantages of 19th century gender prejudices in their stride to become influential voices of this period.
The three women discussed – Christian Isobel Johnstone, Margaret Oliphant and Annie Swan – all felt obliged to conceal or adapt their journalism due to expectations of middle-class women of the time: having a job was considered a contradiction to femininity and propriety.
Shields found that each of these women adjusted to ensure their own success; Johnstone remained invisible, Oliphant used anonymity to hide her gender and Swan used the female stereotype to her advantage, achieving an almost celebrity status.
While little is known about Johnstone, Shields argued that she had more authority over the Scottish periodical press than the other two women. Johnstone fought to lower the price of periodical publications so that the poor could have access; she felt that these works would lead to moral refinement amongst the lower class. She transformed the famous Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine to a voice of reform, which, for example, openly criticised the Highland Clearances and supported the abolition of slavery. However, while she was responsible for approximately 20 per cent of the content between 1834 and 1846, Johnstone maintained an invisible status and received little credit for her work.
Oliphant remained similarly anonymous throughout her career despite her extensive work for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: a more expensive publication for an elite, highly educated readership.
Swan became a kind of spiritual counsellor to her readers, which although brought her fame and money, left her vulnerable to harsh criticisms and compelled her to maintain a certain model of femininity. For instance, she ran for a political seat and, upon her loss, her readers were delighted that she would continue her domestic-centred writings. Only by continuing to maintain the feminine stereotype could she be respected as a writer.
Juliet Shields’ passionate, informative talk summarised the tough yet successful lives of these women whose work is frequently forgotten in history. We must look back to these hidden individuals to learn from their battles in pursuing their dreams and take inspiration from their lives as we continue their fight.
When Women Ran the Scottish Periodical Press with Juliet Shields
National Library of Scotland
7th March 2017
A piece written for “The Student” – Edinburgh University’s newspaper.