Chrystal Macmillan

Chrystal Macmillan
Chrystal Macmillan
Monochrome photograph portrait of a woman in her twenties, shown from the bust upward, the woman wearing a vertical-patterned blouse decorated by a row of buttons between the shoulders and the closed collar, her face directly forward gazing at the viewer, her cheeks prominent and fleshy, the mouth slightly opened in a tight smile, the coarse, sun-bleached sandy-colored hair parted in the middle, extending to the ears in an overall loose wave with flyaway strands
Born Jessie Chrystal Macmillan
June 13, 1872(1872-06-13)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died September 21, 1937(1937-09-21) (aged 65)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Education Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, Logic
Alma mater University of Edinburgh

Chrystal Macmillan (13 June 1872 – 21 September 1937) was a Scottish barrister, feminist and pacifist, and the first female science graduate from the University of Edinburgh as well as that institution's first female honours graduate in Mathematics. She was an activist for women's right to vote, and for other women's causes. She was the first woman to plead a case before the House of Lords, and was one of the founders of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

In the first year of World War I, Macmillan spoke for the peace-seeking women of the United Kingdom at the International Congress of Women, a peace congress convened at the Hague. Afterward, she met with world leaders such as President Woodrow Wilson, whose countries were still neutral, to present the proposals formulated at the Hague. Wilson subsequently used these proposals as some of his Fourteen Points, his justification for making war to forge a lasting peace. At war's end, Macmillan served as a delegate at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, and helped encourage the founding of the League of Nations. Macmillan tried but did not succeed in getting the League to establish nationality for women independent of the nationality of their husbands.


Early career

Macmillan was born Jessie Chrystal Macmillan on 13 June 1872 to Edinburgh Tea Merchant, John Macmillan and his wife Jessie Chrystal Finlayson. She was the couple's only daughter among their eight sons. After an early education in Edinburgh she boarded at St Leonards School and St Katharines School for Girls in St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. She returned to enroll at the University of Edinburgh in October 1892. Among the first female students there, she was not the first to graduate, as others were more advanced in their studies when they entered as graduate students, and earned Masters degrees before she finished her undergraduate work. Macmillan studied science subjects including Honours Mathematics with George Chrystal, Astronomy with Ralph Copeland, and Natural Philosophy with Peter Guthrie Tait and Cargill Gilston Knott. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in April 1896, the first woman at Edinburgh to do so.[1]

In the summer of 1896 she went to Berlin for further university study, then returned to Edinburgh and passed an examination in Greek language to enter the Faculty of Arts in October 1896. She studied a number of social subjects including politics, and graduated in April 1900. Macmillan was the first woman to earn First-class honours from Edinburgh in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, also earning Second-class honours in Moral Philosophy and Logic. During this time she was a member of the Edinburgh Ladies' Debating Society, a forum which helped her gain confidence arguing in the face of opposition. She also joined the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in May 1897, the second woman member after Flora Philip in 1896.[1]

Women's rights

Macmillan was active in the Edinburgh National Society for Women's Suffrage (ENSWS). In 1897, two women's groups in Great Britain united to become the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), of whom Macmillan, along with Louisa Stevenson, served as executive committee members from Edinburgh.[2] She was known as Chrystal Macmillan—she did not use the name Jessie, her mother's first name and her own birth name.[1]

As graduates, Macmillan and four other women were full members of the General Council of Edinburgh University, but they were denied the opportunity to vote in February 1906 to determine the Member of Parliament who would represent the university seat. Macmillan argued that the wording of the General Council's voting statutes used the word persons throughout, and that she and the other female graduates were indeed persons.[3] In March, Macmillan wrote to Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy to ask for aid, as Elmy was the author of the pamphlet The Enfranchisement of Women. Macmillan told Elmy "I formed my beliefs on your pamphlet."[3] Elmy recommended she contact Charlotte Carmichael Stopes for additional useful arguments. Macmillan brought the case before the University Courts in 1907 but lost, and lost a subsequent appeal. Scottish suffragists banded together to raise the £1000 required to present a case to the House of Lords. They hoped to raise awareness in Great Britain of the absurdity and injustice of denying the vote to educated women such as themselves.[3]

In November 1908, Macmillan appeared in London to argue, as a university graduate, for her right to vote for Scottish University seats. During her speech, the buildings of Parliament were made to suspend the temporary arrangements put in place to prevent women from entering—such arrangements had been instituted after the first militant suffrage agitations.[4] Macmillan was the first woman to argue a case before the bar of the House of Lords.[5] She was backed by her contemporary, Frances Simson, one of the first eight female graduates of Edinburgh. Given audience late in the day, Macmillan spoke for three quarters of an hour. Press reports of the appearance described her as a "modern Portia", the beautiful, intelligent and controversial wife of Brutus, famous assassin of Julius Caesar. In Scotland, Glasgow's The Herald reported that she began nervously but warmed to her subject and "argued law in an admirable speaking voice".[1] Two days later she continued to plead her case, this time in "complete self-possession", wearing a dark red outfit and hat trimmed with ermine furs.[1] Like other suffragists in Britain and the United States, she based her case on the words person and persons in the voting statutes, arguing that such unspecific words were no basis for the exclusion of one entire sex from voting.[5] The court upheld both lower courts' decisions that the word persons did not include women when referring to privileges granted by the state. She lost the case, but The New York Times reported that she responded to the decision against her with the words "We'll live to fight another day".[6] In Wellington, New Zealand, the Evening Post wrote a less strident account, noting that Macmillan was cheerful in defeat. After the court adjourned, she said to a reporter from the London Daily Chronicle, "I don't suppose that there is anything more to be done just now, but we shall live to fight another day."[7] No matter her exact words, her time at the House of Lords attracted worldwide publicity which proved valuable to the women's cause.[5]

In 1911, Macmillan attended the sixth congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Stockholm. There, she embarked upon a long-term project, in cooperation with Marie Stritt, president of the German Union for Woman Suffrage, and Maria Vérone, president of the French League for Women's Rights, to document women's voting conditions around the world. In May 1913, after two years of correspondence with widely separated women's rights activists to gather global information, the women completed Woman Suffrage In Practice, 1913, a book to which Carrie Chapman Catt added a foreword. Published in conjunction with the NUWSS and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the book described current women's voting practises in 35 countries and empires, with the authors dividing the work by country. Macmillan was responsible for writing about the UK, the US, New Zealand, Australia, India, China, South Africa and five smaller countries. Macmillan noticed that in few countries and empires were women excluded specifically by statute—they were instead kept from voting by custom alone. She wrote from both personal experience and outside observation of women's activists: "as soon as they become alive to this fact, they have tested the legality of their exclusion in the law courts."[8] In 1913, Macmillan attended the seventh IWSA congress in Budapest, and began to serve the IWSA as vice president, a position she would hold for ten years.[5] In 1914, she authored a 30-page booklet entitled Facts versus fancies on woman suffrage published by the NUWSS.

Peace activism

When World War I began, Macmillan looked for peace activism on the part of NUWSS. Instead, she found a majority of British women were in favor of helping the men win the war.[9] Her pacifism was not at all passive—soon after hostilities broke out, she traveled to Flushing, Netherlands on a mission of mercy. By late October 1914 she was providing food for refugees from the fall of Antwerp. Macmillan signed the Open Christmas Letter, a peace-seeking exchange between women of warring nations, in late 1914.[10]

Elsewhere in the world, pacifist women were forced to adjust to the realities of war. After "the guns of August", Rosika Schwimmer, a native of Austria–Hungary working in England but prevented by war from returning home, outlined her idea for an international conference of neutrals to mediate between warring nations.[11] In September 1914, Stritt wrote to Catt in America with "deep personal regret" for the "terrible war".[10] The pacifist women of Germany were forced by war to withdraw their invitation to host the annual IWSA congress which was to have been held nine months later in Berlin.[10] In December 1914, Canadian Julia Grace Wales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, published her views about working toward a mediated peace in a pamphlet entitled "Continuous Mediation Without Armistice", popularly known as the Wisconsin Plan.[12] Taking these messages as her inspiration, Catt proposed that, rather than holding a woman suffrage convention in Berlin, an international peace congress of women should meet in The Hague for four days beginning 28 April 1915.[11]

When this announcement reached the UK, the NUWSS was divided on the one hand by patriots such as Millicent Fawcett who were devoted to war work and on the other by the signers of the Christmas letter who wished to send peace delegates. However, the majority of the NUWSS were nationalistic more than they were peace-minded.[9] They rejected a resolution favored by internationalists Helen Bright Clark and Margaret Bondfield[13] which would have supported a delegation of women at The Hague.[14] Because of this, women such as Margaret Ashton,[15] Helena Swanwick and Maude Royden resigned from the NUWSS and made plans to attend at The Hague, some 180 women in total.[16] Macmillan was the only internationalist executive of NUWSS who did not resign; she was away performing relief work.[17] Volunteering near The Hague, Macmillan prepared to join the ex-NUWSS members after the group crossed the English Channel.

Macmillan was photographed at The Hague in 1915 for an article published in The Survey.

At The Hague 28 April to 1 May 1915, a large congress of 1,150 women from North America and Europe gathered to discuss peace proposals.[18] The event was called the International Congress of Women, or the Women's Peace Congress. The 180-strong contingent of British women was greatly reduced by Winston Churchill's purposeful cancellation of British ferry service across the Channel, stranding most of the British activists.[16] Already in Antwerp, Macmillan easily attended the women's conference to speak for the UK—she was one of only three British women present.[1] Macmillan was selected as a member of the international committee who were to travel to neutral nations and champion the proposal of the Congress. The Wisconsin Plan was unanimously adopted as the optimum method for returning peace to the world,[12] and Macmillan, Schwimmer and the committee traveled to the neutral US to present President Woodrow Wilson with it. Many of the women's peace proposals were used by Wilson in his Fourteen Points, and the women's efforts helped encourage the later founding of the League of Nations.[18]

After the war, Macmillan went to Zürich in May 1919 as a delegate to the International Congress of Women. The Congress strongly condemned the harsh surrender terms that were being planned for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles to be signed the next month. Macmillan carried the Congress' condemnation to the ongoing Paris Peace Conference, but no changes were made to the treaty.[1]


By early 1918, British women who had attained the age of 30 were given the right to vote and hold office. Macmillan took the opportunity to become a non-practising barrister, a lawyer concerned more with the theory of law than with individual cases, and she began to work for women's rights from within the legal community. She passed the bar on 28 January 1924 and joined the Middle Temple.[1] As she was studying for the bar, she co-founded the Open Door Council for the repeal of legal restraints on women. Macmillan worked to lift restrictions and so give women of all stations an equal opportunity in the workplace.[5] NUWSS was re-organised in 1918 as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, but Macmillan disagreed with the group's stance on protective legislation for women workers. In 1929, she co-founded a global group, the Open Door International for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker—she served as president of this group until her death.[5]

In 1935, Macmillan unsuccessfully stood for election as the Liberal candidate from Edinburgh. In the same period, she worked to stem the traffic in females used as sexual slaves. To that end, she worked with Alison Roberta Noble Neilans' Association for Moral and Social Hygiene.[5] Feminist writer Cicely Hamilton wrote of Macmillan that "she was the right kind of lawyer, one who held that Law should be synonymous with Justice ... Her chief aim in life—one might call it her passion—was to give every woman of every class and nation the essential protection of justice. She was, herself, a great and very just human being ... She could not budge an inch on matters of principle but she never lost her temper and never bore a grudge in defeat."[1]

Women's nationality

In 1917, Macmillan spoke out against the practise of assigning a woman's national citizenship depending on who she married. From 1905, this had been the vocal position of Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, known as Lady Aberdeen, but Macmillan saw the issue in a new light during the war. Women who were married to foreigners were, upon declaration of war, faced suddenly with status as enemy nationals within the land of their birth. From the same legal basis, a number of British women were enjoying full citizenship in enemy territories.[19] Macmillan was in favor of women retaining their existing citizenship through marriage. To that end, she wrote a piece entitled "The Nationality of Married Women" that was published twice in Jus Suffragii, once in July 1917 and again with updated statistics in June 1918. However, no new laws were passed about it, and a woman's citizenship remained tied to that of her husband.

The subject came up again in 1930, during the Conference on Codification of International Law, held in The Hague. A strong contingent of women from America joined international women's groups to change the existing nationality laws, but the women were unable to agree on wording. Intense lobbying by women, and a massive parade demonstration, failed to influence the conferees, and the international law continued to hold that a woman's nationality followed her husband's. In response, Macmillan organized an International Committee for Action on the Nationality of Married Women early the next year. Six of the most influential international women's groups sought a broad base of support from working women. Macmillan's stated goal was to delay ratification of the Hague Convention, and to make certain that a woman's nationality would not change without her consent, and that the nationality of a couple's children would not be more influenced by the father's nationality.[19] The new committee was successful in lobbying the League of Nations to address the problem, but when the League constituted a study group, that group was split between two intractable factions. On one side were those who wanted a married couple to have exactly one nationality, based on that of the husband, and on the other side were those like Macmillan who favored independent citizenship between spouses, with the possibility of wives having different citizenship than their husbands, and children to be allowed dual citizenship. In 1932, the women's group, at an impasse, were pushed aside as ineffectual by the League of Nations, who decided in favor of ratifying the Hague Convention. The women's group disbanded, and the Hague convention was ratified in 1937.[19]


In 1937, Macmillan's health was failing. In June, a leg was amputated, and her heart was weak. On 21 September she died of heart disease, at home in bed at 8 Chalmers Crescent, Edinburgh. On 23 September her body was cremated. In her will, she specified bequests to the Open Door International for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker, and to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene.[1]


In 1957, the United Nations established independent nationality for each married person, a ruling Macmillan had worked toward without success in her lifetime.[19]

A building at the University of Edinburgh is named for her, the Chrystal Macmillan Building at the north-west corner of George Square. Since 2008, it houses the majority of the School of Social and Political Science.[20] The Chrystal Macmillan Prize is a £100 award given "at the discretion of the Scholarships and Prizes Committee" of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London, a professional group of attorneys.[21] The prize was founded as an annual grant to benefit female law students scoring the highest in the bar's final examination, and to support societies with which Macmillan was associated.[1] A Millennial Plaque honoring Macmillan is placed at the King's Buildings, a science campus at the University of Edinburgh. The plaque notes that she was a "suffragist, founder of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom", as well as the being the "first woman science graduate of the University", an honor she achieved in 1896.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l O'Connor, J. J.; E. F. Robertson (January 2008). "Jessie Chrystal MacMillan". MacTutor History of Mathematics. University of St Andrews Scotland, School of Mathematics and Statistics. Retrieved 6 March 2010. 
  2. ^ "Votes For Women: The Women's Suffrage Movement in Edinburgh". Retrieved 6 March 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c Crawford, 2001, p. 363–365.
  4. ^ Reynolds, Siân (2007). Paris-Edinburgh: cultural connections in the Belle Epoque. Ashgate Publishing. p. 188. ISBN 0754634647. Retrieved 7 March 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Rappaport, 2001, pp. 413–414.
  6. ^ "Antis Fear Success of Suffragettes". The New York Times: pp. C1. 12 December 1908. Retrieved 6 March 2010. 
  7. ^ "No Right To Vote". Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand). 22 January 1909. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  8. ^ Macmillan, Chrystal; Marie Stritt, Maria Verone (May, 1913). "Introduction". Woman Suffrage In Practice, 1913. Carrie Chapman Catt (Second ed.). London and New York: International Woman Suffrage Alliance. pp. x. Retrieved 7 March 2010. 
  9. ^ a b Liddington, Jill (1991). The road to Greenham Common: feminism and anti-militarism in Britain since 1820. Syracuse University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0815625391. 
  10. ^ a b c Oldfield, 2003, p. 18.
  11. ^ a b Hobhouse, Emily (1915). "Foreword". Bericht—Rapport—Report. Amsterdam: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (First Congress: 1915: The Hague). pp. ix–xii. 
  12. ^ a b "Teacher Background—Julia Grace Wales and the Peace Movement". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  13. ^ Rappaport, 2001, p. 98.
  14. ^ Crawford, 2001, p. 114.
  15. ^ Crawford, 2001, p. 19.
  16. ^ a b Crawford, 2001, p. 668.
  17. ^ Bolt, Christine (2004). Sisterhood questioned?: race, class and internationalism in the American and British women's movements, c.1880s–1970s. Routledge. p. 33. ISBN 0415158532. Retrieved April 27, 2010. 
  18. ^ a b "How Did Women Activists Promote Peace in Their 1915 Tour of Warring European Capitals?". Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  19. ^ a b c d Rupp, Leila J. (1997). Worlds of women: the making of an international women's movement. Princeton University Press. pp. 146–148. ISBN 0691016755. Retrieved 7 March 2010. 
  20. ^ "Chrystal Macmillan Building". News. School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. 19 June 2008. Retrieved 6 March 2010. 
  21. ^ "Other Prizes". Middle Temple. Retrieved 6 March 2010. 

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