Queen's 175th Anniversary

Queen's University Queen's University

[Queen's University Douglas Library]
[Queen's University Douglas Library]
Celebrating Queen's 175th Anniversary

Lady Aberdeen

Decade: 1890s

Their goal should not be to emulate men, but instead to apply themselves “in the spirit of truest womanliness” for the betterment of society

[Lady Aberdeen]When Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks Hamilton-Gordon stepped onto Queen’s campus in 1894, her reputation preceded her.

Better known as Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, the Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, Ishbel had arrived in Canada the previous year as a well-known Victorian bluestocking — a woman dedicated to social activism and intellectual uplift for her gender. She had spearheaded educational and health care improvement for the Scottish working class and was outspoken in her support of votes for women. She carried these passions across the Atlantic to Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Lady Aberdeen actively promoted the empowerment of women, organizing likeminded groups across the country. She helped found the National Council of Women to give women a coast-to-coast platform for collective action.

Eager to promote better health care away from hospitals, Lady Aberdeen helped create the Victorian Order of Nurses, which – just as Queen’s had a half-century before — received a royal charter from Queen Victoria.

Lady Aberdeen arranged for books to be sent to western settlers and nurtured women’s art appreciation groups.

She became a confidante of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

Ever restless, in 1893 she published her memoir, Through Canada with a Kodak, of a trip across the young nation.

In the spring of 1894, Principal George Grant invited the Aberdeens to visit Queen’s and address its students. Aberdeen Street, just north of campus, commemorates the couple’s visit. In his opening remarks, Lord Aberdeen flattered Queen’s for cultivating knowledge and Lady Aberdeen followed with a more rousing message.

[Lady Aberdeen]
(Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Queen’s was to be congratulated, she said, for admitting women almost 20 years before. Despite this, there still persisted “the ancient prejudice against women receiving a University degree.” Women needed to “rebel against that system.” A “little smattering of knowledge” would not suffice. Women needed to train for “high service” to tackle the “social problems and difficulties” of Canada’s emerging urban-industrial society. Their goal should not be to emulate men, but instead to apply themselves “in the spirit of truest womanliness” for the betterment of society.

Lady Aberdeen closed by reminding Queen’s women of the abiding “importance of being prettily and daintily dressed,” whereupon the president of the Levana Society presented her with a bouquet of red roses tied with a tricolour ribbon.

Three years later, Queen’s gave Lady Aberdeen an honorary degree, the first the university ever awarded to a woman. Despite her zeal, however, women remained in the minority at Queen’s until the 1970s.

The historical content of this site was curated by a committee of faculty and staff with submissions from the broader Queen’s community.
These moments are not intended to represent an exhaustive history of the university, but rather significant sign posts in its development.
Special thanks go to University Historian Duncan McDowall for his contributions.
Many thanks also to the people of Queen's University Archives for their support of this anniversary project.
Have feedback about the moments? Please contact qu175@queensu.ca