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 opportunities 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 like-minded 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 praised Queen’s for cultivating knowledge and Lady Aberdeen followed with a more rousing message.
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” and to tackle the “social problems and difficulties” of Canada’s emerging urban-industrial society.
Three years later, Queen’s gave Lady Aberdeen an honorary degree. This was not only the first such honour that Queen's university had awarded to a woman, it was also the first awarded to a woman by any university in Canada.