Exploring the diary of Helen Fraser (1881-1979)
This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 47, winter 2022.
Words: Heidi Egginton.
Helen Fraser's diary is a typical, if evocatively written, account of the life of a middle-class woman in her early 20s in Edwardian Glasgow. It is full of descriptions of church services, the books she read and occasional, uneventful family outings to the seaside. Then, in August 1906, everything changed.
"She is a magnificent speaker. I have never heard a finer – she is perfectly logical – she has an absolutely spontaneous and delightful sense of humour ... she has done much here in Glasgow in one week for the Cause."
Fraser wrote this after hearing Teresa Billington-Greig deliver a speech on 'the woman's vote question' for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
This was the wing of the suffrage movement which had stepped up its campaigns in Scotland and used militant tactics to further its aims.
Billington-Greig was one of its fieriest speakers – one of the first women organisers in the Independent Labour Party and instantly recognisable for the plaits she wore woven around her head like armour.
Fraser is introduced to Billington-Greig and finds herself agreeing to chair the WSPU's next meeting. Unfortunately for readers of her diary, there is a gap of a year before her next entry, in which she describes "the busiest year of my life – 'suffraging'", and there the journal ends.
Having never previously dabbled in politics, Fraser would become a key suffrage organiser in Scotland and the north of England, though she later split from the WSPU over their violent tactics.
When women eventually won the right to be elected as MPs, she was adopted by the Liberal Party as Scotland's first official woman parliamentary candidate, standing unsuccessfully in 1922 and 1923.
Fraser went on to forge a career as a public speaker, delivering lectures for international women's organisations, and emigrated to Australia on the eve of the Second World War.
It is rare to find such a vivid account of the exact moment at which a woman decides to devote their life to a political cause.
It was not until the 1960s that Scottish women's suffrage campaigners started donating their personal papers to the Library's archive collections.
Since then, we have preserved the papers of Lady Tweedsmuir, Conservative and Unionist MP; Margo MacDonald, SNP MP and MSP; and Katharine Elliot, Baroness Elliot of Harwood, who became one of the first women to enter the House of Lords in 1958.
It remains the case that the Library has many more archives of MPs called 'George' than it does of Scottish women parliamentarians. Westminster and Holyrood do not represent the only places in which women participate in politics in their daily lives, of course, and the Library has important collections relating to 20th century women campaigners, writers, artists, and academics involved in activism.
In 2014 alone, women donated hundreds of leaflets, reports and meeting papers to the Library's Scottish Independence Referendum collection.
Yet not one of the unpublished diaries containing first-hand accounts of the 2014 referendum campaigns in our collections is written by a woman or non-binary person.
Why does this matter? Political archives become the raw material for best-selling biographies, documentaries, academic dissertations, newspaper articles and novels. They have the potential to shape the way we think about changes in our society in the past and how we understand political events in the present.
Even when women started to get involved in politics in greater numbers, there have historically been additional barriers to documenting their work.
Just as people needed access to expensive equipment to record their lives on film before the age of the camcorder and smartphone, it took time, money and dedication to put a political life on paper without a publisher or secretary.
All that remains of the personal archive of Peggy Herbison – a long-serving Labour MP, Cabinet Minister and the first woman to serve as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – is the contents of a single drawer.
Discovered in a desk in the House of Commons in 2005, the papers were thought to have been in storage since the 1950s and were later given to the Parliamentary Archives.
If most of the written records which have survived in archives and libraries relate to the lives of men, this is often thanks to the efforts of the women who did their filing and kept their papers safe.
Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #ThankYouforTyping and you will find dozens of examples of women's hidden work on books by male authors.
Similarly, it is not unusual to find political women's private diaries and letters in archives belonging to their husbands, fathers, brothers and employers.
Journalism might be the first rough draft of history but archives have a special role to play in capturing lived experiences in people's own words, which may otherwise never enter the historical record.
When Helen Fraser sat down to write about Teresa Billington-Greig in 1906, she was describing something which she could not have known Scots would be able to take for granted in the decades to come – hearing a political speech given by a woman in public.
In her 90s, she made sure this formative early encounter with a female political role model was committed to paper and tape recorder and made a matter of public record. She retold the story of her first WSPU meeting again and again — in her autobiography, 'A Woman in a Man's World' (1971) and in the interviews she gave to the Women's Library, recordings from which are now freely available on the London School of Economics Library website.
In 1978 she donated a collection of her letters and newspaper clippings about herself to Glasgow's Mitchell Library, saying she wanted the people of the city to "have something" from her.
Yet somehow, a few years ago, Helen Fraser's diary ended up in a recycling centre in Ulladulla, New South Wales.
She had one more stroke of good fortune, however. A staff member at the centre showed the diary to his mother-in-law, Bonita Frank, who recognised its significance.
Having visited our Library, Bonita sent us the diary in 2018 to preserve on behalf of the people of Scotland.
One of the best parts of my job is working with people who are thinking about turning their private papers into a public archive.
Helen Fraser's diary is a reminder of the circuitous routes some things take before they reach the Library – and of the impact small decisions can have on the way political women are remembered.
Letter to the Library from Bonita Frank:
My son in law works at the recycling centre at Ulladulla. One day an elderly man came in with a suitcase filled with material. Asked if no one in the family wanted to keep it, he said no one was interested.
Passed on to me, fortunately after a little bit of an effort I was able to read the old-fashioned handwriting. Some of the letters were formed quite differently and not easy to read unless one had learned handwriting in a previous generation! Loving history and biographies, I became fascinated by the story I was reading. Fortunately, she had written her name at the front of her journal. From here, serendipitously, I checked Wikipedia – and there she was: a Scottish feminist. Then I found that her book 'A Woman in a Man's World' was deposited in a number of Australian libraries and was able to borrow a copy. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became by this amazing woman.
Reading these manuscripts was like having one episode of a long running story. I was left with too many questions. I'm sure there must have been many more journals.
I wondered what I could do with the material. I felt it didn't belong to me and that I was the means by which it was rescued. That, really, it belonged to the Scottish people even though Helen Fraser had emigrated to Australia. So the next part of the story is this: in 2016 I was on a tour of Scotland, and having already been to Edinburgh Castle on previous occasions, decided simply to explore the Royal Mile, including the National Library. This exposure meant it was the first place I thought of that might be interested. It added to my joy that they were.
I fell in love with Helen and longed to know more, even longing to keep the manuscripts to myself, but they are in much better keeping in Scotland and available to the Scottish people. I feel so sad that no one appeared to appreciate this amazing woman.
– Bonita Frank
To mark the opening this year of the 'Treasures of the National Library of Scotland' exhibition, we asked some of Scotland's national treasures to select their favourite items, as part of three special podcast episodes. One of our guests, footballer Leanne Crichton, chose the Women's Suffrage collection and described how Helen Fraser's diary in particular stood out. She said: "It was really wonderful if it wasn't for women like Helen Fraser the world wouldn't be the place it is today."
Read the full Discover issue: