Challenging authority, championing equality

Helen Kay is currently researching the work and life of Chrystal Macmillan. In 2014, her work on Chrystal was put on hold when she became the coordinator of an International History Working Group, preparing material for centenary exhibitions on the history of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Challenging the established authority

Why did five women graduates challenge Edinburgh University authorities in 1906?

Chrystal Macmillan, Elsie Inglis, Frances Melville, Margaret Nairn and Frances Simpson had the audacity to request voting papers for the Parliamentary General Election under the University Franchise.

The University acknowledged that:

‘The women have been admitted to graduation in several of the faculties of the universities and their names have been placed on the Register of the General Council. They have attended and voted at the meetings of the General Council, and they have hitherto enjoyed and exercised all the privileges possessed by male graduates of the universities.’1

But to claim the right to vote for the university candidate in a Parliamentary election was considered a step too far and the university authorities refused the women’s request. The men were shocked at the audacity of the women when they pursued their application through the Court of Sessions in Edinburgh and on to the House of Lords in London. The university authorities spared no expense in hiring the best lawyers to represent the universities in court hearings, and when the women eventually lost their case the university claimed costs of £111 14s 3d.

Even the Press were impressed by the women’s arguments, naming Chrystal Macmillan the ‘Scottish Portia’, but the university authorities and the lawyers realised that this claim for a parliamentary vote, if granted, would create a dangerous precedent.   The Law Lords supported the university decision to refuse voting papers to the women on the grounds that the word ‘person’ in the relevant legislation, did not include ‘woman’. 2

Chrystal Macmillan who presented the women graduates case in the House of Lords in 1908 was a pleasant but dangerous woman throughout her life, continually challenging the established order, trying to improve the situation for women. She campaigned all her life for a woman’s right to full citizenship under the law, in Scotland, in Great Britain and internationally.

Her suffrage campaigning took her to all parts of Scotland, from Dumfries to Shetland.

‘Men have made a more comfortable world for boys and men than for girls and women; and the women now want the power to make the world more comfortable for the girls and women without doing any harm to the boys and men. It is not good for men that they should be in the position of tyrants.’3

By 1910 she was learning the power of monitoring proposed legislation as Scottish representative on the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW, later known as National Council of Women)

‘She was always on the alert to ‘spot’ clauses which were prejudicial to women, or which differentiated their treatment from that of men.’4

In May 1913, she recommended that NUWW members write to local MPs urging that Amendments to the Insurance Act should include a clause ensuring that ‘one fourth of each Insurance committee of representatives of insured persons should be women’ and that a clause be inserted in Mental Deficiency Bill to ensure the inclusion of a Woman Commissioner. 5

Her reliance on the law to challenge established views gave her a sound understanding of legislation – so that when some women were granted the vote in 1918, Chrystal Macmillan was called upon to write a pamphlet ‘And shall I have the Parliamentary vote?’


Response to World War One

Chrystal Macmillan ran the relief office for International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in London.   In response to a request from Holland for help in caring for 80,000 Belgian refugees in October 1914, in one day she raised the money and organised a load of food which she and a colleague, Mary Sheepshanks, took to Flushing, breaking the blockade.6 The women travelled extensively in Holland, listening to what the refugees and camp organisers needed, before returning to Britain to raise money for further supplies.

Many women in the international suffrage movement were unwilling to join in the patriotic fervour sweeping through Britain, France and Germany at the start of WWI; and in February 1915, twelve women from Belgium, Britain and Germany met with Dutch women to discuss how to maintain their international relationships. Chrystal Macmillan became one of the organisers for an International Congress of Women which met in April 1915. 1200 women from 12 countries chose to face the dangers of travel through war-torn countries to meet in The Hague. With Chrystal Macmillan as chair of the Resolutions Committee, 20 resolutions were passed expressing the women’s horror at the bloodshed, providing an analysis of the causes of war and advocating the use of mediation to resolve international disputes. The Congress elected 5 envoys to take the message to all the Heads of States in Europe and USA, urging them to end the bloodshed and resolve the dispute through continuous mediation. Despite their efforts, no statesman would take the first step toward resolving the war through peaceful methods.

The women were not applauded by their fellow citizens for their efforts – in Germany, some women were imprisoned on their return home: in Britain, Millicent Fawcett thought their actions were close to treason: and Chrystal Macmillan’s family refused to talk about her involvement.

Chrystal Macmillan and Jane Addams
Chrystal with Jane Addams in 1919.

As Chair of the Political Committee of delegates to the Zurich Congress of Women in 1919, Chrystal Macmillan presented the resolution criticising the Versailles Treaty. The women welcomed the establishment of the League of Nations but regretted that ‘the Covenant of the League now submitted by the Allied and Associated Powers, in many respects does not accord with the 14 Points laid down as the basis for the present negotiations, contains certain provisions that will stultify its growth, and omits others which are essential to world peace.’ 7




Women’s claim to full citizenship

From 1916 onwards, Chrystal Macmillan campaigned for a change in national and international law on the Nationality of Married Women. The international legal situation for women who married foreigners was a mess: it was possible for women who married foreign husbands to have two nationalities imposed upon them:   some women were left with no nationality, and in practice were left stateless; and others were deprived of all citizenship rights in the land of their birth.

The British position was stated firmly by Sir Cecil Hurst, Legal Adviser to the Foreign Office who defined the legal situation in 1923: ‘Our law in this country … is founded on the principle that husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband’.8 This meant that British women who married foreign men lost their British nationality, and, even if they remained resident in Britain, they were thereafter treated as aliens, having to register with the local police and being refused a passport. Chrystal Macmillan argued that ‘there is no reason why the rights of a woman in connection with nationality should be curtailed because of marriage any more than are those of a man.[…] The right to nationality in one’s own person is the most fundamental political right.’9

When the Government showed no sign of drafting new legislation, Chrystal Macmillan could not accept this lack of action and, in 1921, drafted a document to illustrate what such a legislative change would look like. Two years later she was the only woman called to give evidence to the British Government’s Commission of Enquiry into the Nationality of Married Women.

At international level, Chrystal Macmillan showed herself to be equally resolute. A committee member of several Women’s International Organisations, she galvanised an International Demonstration of Women in 1930 and organised a deputation to the League of Nations Codification Conference to promote the resolution ‘That a woman, whether married or unmarried, should have the same right as a man to retain or to change her nationality’.

Chrystal as barrister
Chrystal as barrister.

The lawyers and jurists, all men, were meeting in The Hague to discuss international issues of nationality and Chrystal Macmillan wanted to make visible a major problem – the agenda for the Codification Conference made no reference to women, nor any acknowledgement that women’s situation under international law was different from that of men.   But by the end of the Demonstration, the lawyers agreed to place the issue on the agenda in future discussions.

Although she worked cooperatively with women on Committees to promote women’s right to equality, Chrystal Macmillan could be very firm in presenting her own view. When the British Government, encouraged by the International Federation of University Women to include a woman delegate to attend the League of Nations discussions on Nationality, Chrystal turned down the nomination, as she explained, ‘I should not be limited to explaining what the attitude of Federation is and urging the adoption only of the principle to which the Federation has adhered but should be free to express my own views.’10

The post in the delegation was given to Dr Ivy Williams who described Chrystal Macmillan as woman who ‘still puts the principle of equality first, whereas I have been saying that we should consider ourselves first as lawyers who would help forward international agreement and only secondarily as women.’10


Relevance to today

The Council of the League of Nations proposed to consult women’s organisations in 1931 on the methods of increasing the collaboration of women in the general work of the League. In reply Chrystal Macmillan suggested that the League could employ more women in high level posts in the Secretariat, and could recommend to the States Members of the League that they raise the status of women to that of men, giving women full civil, economic and political rights. Her analysis of the outcomes of gender blindness in the request from The League of Nations is still relevant today.

‘Full and equal cooperation means a great deal more than being asked to supply information, or mere doing of propaganda and educational work on a policy framed by bodies in which women are not included, or where they are in a very small minority, or inadequately represented. Full and equal cooperation involves the power of directing effective criticism to policies in course of formation, with an effective voice in determining what these policies shall be. It also involves adequate representation among those who administer these policies.’11




1          EU Court 12 Feb 1906 Item X

2          Leneman, Leah 1991 ‘When women were not “persons”: the Scottish Women Graduates Case, 1906-08’ Juridical review, 1991 pt.1, Apr., p.109-118

3          Report of Women’s suffrage meeting in Dumfries under the auspices of Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union on 29 March 1909 reported in Dumfries & Galloway Saturday Standard 27/03/1909

4          Obituary J.S Scotsman 24 sept 1937

5          Minutes of NUWW 13 May 1913

7          Storr, Katherine 2006   Excluded from the Record: Women, Refugees and Relief 1914-1929 Peter Lang: Oxford p168
(Report of the International Congress of Women Zurich May 12 to 17, 1919)

8          House of Commons Select Committe, Report on Nationality of Married Women (London, 1923)]

9          Chrystal Macmillan ‘The Nationality of Married Women’ 1931

10        Correspondence BFUW 1930

11        ‘Memorandum’ The Open Door August 1932