Breaking the Mould was a Workers' Educational Association (WEA) Scotland two year education project for women and girls to learn research and IT skills, and to investigate and present the story of women's history in social and political activism in Scotland over the 100 years from the beginning of WWI. This spans the period from the height of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, postponed during the war years, to the election of the first woman First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon in 2015.

The idea for Breaking the Mould grew out of the WEA's adult education classes for Gude Cause in the build up to the 2009 celebration and re-creation of the 1909 Suffragist Procession in Edinburgh, and the renewed interest that this stimulated in women's history and involvement in political and social activism throughout Scotland. The grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund included support from Gude Cause and Gude Cause Project.

Three geographical areas were involved in the project: Highland, Fife and Edinburgh, each with two groups and with a different focus to investigate and different means of expressing their findings. This book is the product of the work of the Edinburgh groups.

The Edinburgh Groups

The Edinburgh groups, led by the WEA Lothian Women’s Forum and WEA Tutors, aimed to research individuals and groups of women with connections to Edinburgh for inclusion in this publication, its purpose being to share their achievements in social and political activism. We were keen to find out more about women and groups who are less well known, and include them too. The group from north Edinburgh decided to devote its energies to campaigning locally to save public services, continuing their social and political activism, in common with many women throughout the century fighting to look after vulnerable members of their community.

To set the scene the National Library of Scotland organised a session to share material from their archives with all members of the project. Preparation involved two initial workshops which were used to discuss the parameters of the project, how we might gather information and to establish the criteria for inclusion in the publication. It was agreed that the women and groups featured should include examples from a wide range of areas, to illustrate the breadth of social and political action across the century. Some of those selected were first to achieve something; others were involved in establishing ways of addressing inequalities or meeting social needs, both practical and creative.

Two blocks of workshops were arranged and group members began to select women and groups to research. Speakers were John McCaughie, Esther Breitenbach, Helen Kay, Lesley Orr and Adult Learning Project members Nancy Somerville, Clare MacGillivray, Ruby Norman and Rona Brown. They shared their areas of expertise: widening members’ knowledge and understanding of research skills; illustrating how women’s activism has been able to raise awareness of injustice and has tried to tackle this to improve the lives of people at home and across the world. Some members of the group shared draft versions of their research to encourage others by illustrating possible ways of proceeding and where they might source information. A video interview with Helen Clark (Kendall) 1952-2015, was made as part of the project, and shared at one of the workshops.

The Women’s Forum was invited to introduce the project at Previously..., Scotland’s History Festival 2014. This enabled them to develop their skills in working together to prepare and deliver a presentation.

After the workshops ended and with time to complete research and writing, some project members felt able to submit their research for inclusion in the publication, while others contented themselves with taking part in workshop discussions, thereby contributing to the success of both the process and product. Everyone was invited to be part of the group which compiled the submissions. A small group proofread the material which was sent back to contributors for approval. They then collaborated with the designer to create the book.

The Women’s Forum set up a Facebook page to share relevant information and links to useful resources. Still in development is a website which will enable digital access to the information contained in the publication, and will include a digital trail.

The role of women in history is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves, especially at this time of remembering those involved in the tragedy of WWI, with television programmes, talks and exhibitions acknowledging the activities of women during and since the war. There has recently been a proliferation of women’s history groups and courses throughout the country bringing the sacrifices and achievements of women to light at long last.

We hope this publication adds to this wave of interest, reflecting some of this remarkable period in women’s history, much of it to do with human rights, social justice, women’s suffrage; much of it in response to war and the crusade for peace - and how women of Edinburgh rose to the challenge.


Many thanks are extended to everyone who participated in creating this publication, contributing to the success of Breaking the Mould by taking part in the discussions during the workshops and by submitting research material and providing images. This has enabled us to shine a light on some of the women and women’s groups, with connections to Edinburgh, who have made a difference in so many areas of life in the 100 years since the beginning of WWI.  Thanks also go to the speakers for their inspirational talks which made a significant input to the project.

Thank you all.

Margaret Ferguson Burns






Breaking the Mould: Edinburgh
launched 16th September 2015