Catriona Burness is a historian who has published widely on the history of women and parliamentary representation in Scotland. She has worked with many local history groups and held university post-doctoral fellowships and lectureships. She is carrying out research on Mary Barbour on a voluntary basis as a member of the Remember Mary Barbour Association. The Association aims to raise a statue as a lasting memorial to one of Glasgow’s greatest heroes and the unveiling of the completed statue will take place in spring 2017 (date to be confirmed). Please check for details.


None of the definitions of ‘dangerous’ are reassuring. They include menacing, threatening, treacherous, hazardous, risky, dodgy, perilous and precarious. Asking about ‘dangerous people’ will produce a list of dictators, killers and/or criminals, mostly men. The immediate associations with ‘dangerous women’ seem to be with infamous convicted killers.

In the political context, the use of the term generally serves as a warning.

The ‘Dangerous Women’ project asks ‘What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ Who, or what, does she present a danger to? Who gets to say she is dangerous? Why do they want to say it? Does she consider herself dangerous?

Other recent projects have also used the title ‘Dangerous Women’ – for example, heritage projects celebrating and commemorating the women who tried to stop World War One (WW1) and founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1915, dubbed by Winston Churchill as ‘These Dangerous Women’.

The projects subvert the understanding of ‘dangerous’ women, shifting from a negative to a positive frame and marking advances made through challenging the status quo.

This brief article discusses ‘dangerous woman’ with reference to Mary Barbour – social reformer, WW1 Rent Strike leader, founding member of the Women’s Peace Crusade in Scotland and a pioneering woman councillor in 1920s Glasgow.

Was she – is she – a ‘dangerous woman’?


Mary Barbour – background

Born in Kilbarchan on 20 February 1875, Mary Barbour was the third of seven children, to her father James Rough, a carpet weaver. In 1887, the family moved to the village of Elderslie and Mary gained work as a thread twister, eventually becoming a carpet printer.

She married David Barbour in 1896, living first in Dumbarton. Their first child David, born a few months after their marriage, died of meningitis at the age of ten months, a loss likely to have shaped her deep interest in health and housing issues.

By 1901 the Barbours had moved to Govan and she was an active member of the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild. She also became involved in the Socialist Sunday School and the Independent Labour Party (ILP); the home focus of her activity was Govan and Glasgow.

‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’

‘In Govan, Mrs Barbour, a typical working-class housewife, became the leader of a movement such as had never been seen before, or since for that matter. … Street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out.’

(William Gallacher, 1936).

In 1914 housing was clearly Glasgow’s greatest social problem and Mary Barbour had become the ‘leading woman in Govan’ within the newly formed Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. As a political campaigner she was already challenging the status quo.

After the First World War started in 1914, thousands of workers flocked to Glasgow to jobs in the shipyards and munitions factories. Property owners calculated they could raise rents for tenement flats. Instead, fury was aroused and the rent strike was the response. The historian James Smyth has noted that Govan was the initial storm centre and ‘remained the major bulwark of the struggle’.

One of the key players in Glasgow’s radical politics, Helen Crawfurd, gave a detailed description in her Memoirs of the tactics used during the rent strike:

‘The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and in the working class districts, committees were formed, to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words ‘RENT STRIKE. WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increases were demanded. When the increased rents were refused, the property owners immediately took legal action for the eviction of the tenants.

‘The women then organised resistance to these evictions in the following way. In the Govan and Partick districts the working class houses were mainly tenements. One woman with a bell would sit in the close, or passage, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff’s Officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the women came from all parts of the building. Some with flour, if baking, wet clothes, if washing, and other missiles. Usually the Bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women.’

Mary Barbour was involved in every aspect of activities from organising committees to the physical prevention of evictions and seeing off the Sheriff’s Officers. Her contemporaries, Helen Crawfurd and Willie Gallacher, highlight her leadership role, with Willie Gallacher coining the phrase ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’.

By November 1915 as many as 20,000 tenants were on rent strike and rent strike activity was spreading beyond Glasgow to other parts of the country.

The decision by a Partick factor to prosecute 18 tenants for non-payment of a rent increase brought the crisis to a head in Glasgow’s small debt court on 17 November 1915. Many of those in arrears were shipyard workers and there were strikes in support and deputations sent to the court. Thousands of women marched with thousands of shipyard and engineering workers in what the Govan Press described as ‘remarkable scenes’:

Amid news of imminent ministerial intervention, the cases were dismissed. Within a month legislation was in place and the rent strike’s place in history was assured. The Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act 1915 introduced rent control whereby rents were restricted to their August 1914 level.

Joseph Melling, the author of the most detailed study of the rent strikes, underlines the importance of the way in which the industrial and housing protests combined to challenge the authority of landlords and the state. James Smyth considers that ‘it may well have been the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the Scottish working class’.

Mary Barbour’s involvement in this struggle made her a local hero in Govan and much further afield. In itself, this activity puts her firmly into the ‘dangerous woman’ category.


Other wartime activity

After the rent strike, Mary Barbour was involved in both protests against food shortages and anti-war movements.

Socialist groupings such the ILP and the Labour and Socialist Alliance campaigned for peace from the day war started right up to the armistice. The war split the suffrage movement with some militant and constitutional suffrage societies suspending campaigning to support the war effort. The Women’s International League (WIL) was formed in 1915 to offer a space to anti-war suffragists. The WIL was cross-party and according to Helen Crawfurd, it carried out important propaganda work, ‘Mrs Agnes Dollan, Mrs Barbour, Miss Walker, Mrs Ferguson and myself being the local propagandists’.

This same group of ‘more active spirits’ went on to found the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC) in June 1916. The aim was ‘to hold a conference and take greater risks in our literature and propaganda methods’. The ‘risks’ involved taking an anti-war message out onto the streets and into working class areas. Most of the neighbourhood meetings were held during the afternoon and often in back courts, making it easy for women to get involved.

Mary Barbour was a regular speaker at WPC rallies and spoke at the May Day rally in 1917. It must have taken courage. WPC meetings were frequently targeted by pro-war opponents and the police had to be brought in to restore order, as outside Glasgow City Chambers in 1917.

However, she seems to have been more restrained in her WPC and other activity than fellow activists, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan. Alistair Hulett’s song Mrs Barbour’s Army refers to Mary Barbour having been arrested during the rent strike but this seems to have been poetic licence on his part. I have not found any evidence of Mary Barbour being arrested for any of her wartime political activities whilst it is evident from press reports that Crawfurd and Dollan were arrested several times. And Agnes Dollan and Helen Crawfurd sought this out. Mary Barbour didn’t. Churchill would certainly have called her ‘dangerous’, perhaps even more dangerous in her restraint.


Mary Barbour – Pioneering Woman Councillor

Post-war, she was a natural choice in 1920 as one of the ILP council candidates for the Fairfield ward in Govan.

This was one of the first elections after most women over 30 won the vote and Lloyd George had made the memorable post-war promise of ‘Homes fit for Heroes’.

Mary Barbour campaigned not only for better homes, but a higher standard of living generally, and fought for free school milk, children’s playgrounds, municipal wash-houses, and an end to slum housing. An article that she wrote for the Govan Pioneer concluded:

‘The standard must be higher; better housing, and everything that makes life what it should be in the future must come first; the paying for it is the secondary consideration. Lloyd George has advised that you be daring in your demands. I hope the workers will be greatly daring in their demands, not only for better homes, but for a higher standard of living generally.’

At the election she and four other women were elected to Glasgow Corporation, the first women elected in the city since the passing of the 1907 act enabling women to be elected as councillors.

In 1924 Mary Barbour marked other milestones for women in public office when she became both a Bailie and ‘the first fully fledged woman magistrate of the City of Glasgow’.

Her support for Glasgow’s first birth control clinic was more controversial. This went against the voting record of her Socialist MP colleagues, none of whom had supported the Birth Control Enabling Bill in 1922. The Glasgow Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic opened in August 1926 at 51 Govan Road to give advice to married women on family planning.

In 1931 Mary Barbour opted to stand down from the council at the age of 56 stating that she felt ‘the difficulties ahead required young and strenuous fighters’. The Govan Press reported her farewell address as a councillor which welcomed changes on health matters but continued:

‘Eleven years ago those who were returned as representing the working class went forward with certain ideals before them, ideals that they could revolutionise the life of the people of the city, both from a health point of view and from a housing point of view. Those years had been to her a disappointment because of the fact that so little had been done.’

When she died in 1958 her obituary in the Govan Press said:

‘There are women in Govan today who think of Mrs Mary Barbour as one of the great leaders of the Labour Movement who truly represented its spirit and purpose, and I am inclined to agree with them. … Mrs Barbour has been out of the limelight of public affairs in this city for many years now but there never was a more revered and loved local leader than she was in the heyday of her active life.’

She undoubtedly challenged the status quo of her day, taking on landlords and the power of the state in wartime. She wanted not only to change but to revolutionise living conditions. In the positive sense of the term, in relation to her life, Mary Barbour is a leading ‘dangerous woman’ – and still relevant – and ‘dangerous’ – after her death.

Today she is remembered and inspires in Govan and beyond.



This article does not have references. However, it draws material from my longer and fully referenced article, ‘Remember Mary Barbour’ in Scottish Labour History, Volume 50, 2015.



I gratefully acknowledge the research grant from the Lipman-Miliband Trust which enabled archive research visits within Scotland and London and Manchester.


Portrait of Mary Barbour by Govan artist Daniel Fitzpatrick (2015) based on 1920 council election leaflet. Reproduced with the permission of the artist and the Remember Mary Barbour Association. You can find the artist on Twitter @dfitzpatrickart