Priscilla Bright McLaren


Campaigner for women’s rights

McLaren, Priscilla Bright was born on 8 September 1815 at Greenbank, Rochdale, Lancashire, the fifth of the eleven children of Jacob Bright and Martha, née Wood. The politicians John Bright and Jacob Bright were her brothers. Her upbringing gave her a keen and active interest in politics which she never lost until the end of her life. In 1842 Priscilla met the recently widowed Scottish Presbyterian Duncan McLaren (1800–1886) while he was on a visit to her brother at One Ash. She and McLaren married on 6 July 1848; they had one daughter and two sons. She also took on responsibility for five stepchildren, the eldest of whom was seventeen.

When in 1870 Josephine Butler began her social purity and women's equality campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1866, the McLarens were her vigorous supporters. Between 1869 and 1872 the McLarens were both active in the campaign to admit women medical students to the University of Edinburgh.

Priscilla McLaren became disillusioned at what she regarded as the complacency of many men in her political circle over the Contagious Diseases Acts, and became an advocate of women-only meetings within the association. She wanted meetings for working-class women also, but believed that it was incumbent upon the middle classes to take the lead.

McLaren found her instinctive pragmatism sorely tested on other issues of women's rights. She told a conference of the Married Women's Property Committee in 1880 that their struggle was ‘a question of power. On women's suffrage too she was radicalized by running into a brick wall of male indifference. Both she and her husband supported John Stuart Mill's amendment to the 1867 Reform Act in favour of female suffrage, and she became the first president of the Edinburgh Society for Women's Suffrage in 1870, her stepdaughter Agnes being joint secretary with Eliza Wigham. Later she broke with Gladstone over home rule and became a Liberal Unionist. Like her husband she advocated an imperial parliament with representation for the colonies. Not long before she died, she signalled her acceptance of a place for suffragette militancy by signing a letter of sympathy for the activists imprisoned in October 1906.

Activity in the anti-slavery movement brought Priscilla McLaren into touch with the Garrisonian Elizabeth Pease Nichol, who had moved to Glasgow on her marriage in 1853. Later she often reminded her great-niece Alice Clark that she had been born on the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves. Both Priscilla and Duncan McLaren were also active in temperance work, and in both campaigns she worked alongside Eliza Wigham.

Priscilla McLaren was an indefatigable and an entertaining letter-writer. Unlike some campaigners she had a great feeling for individuals and was a good listener. Her judgements were sometimes impatient, but she ‘could look with a smile upon her own strong convictions and impulses’ (British Friend, 310). She died from pneumonia at home at Newington House, Blacket Avenue, Edinburgh, on 5 November 1906, and was buried beside her husband (who had died on 26 April 1886) in St Cuthbert's churchyard, Edinburgh on 9 November.

© Oxford University Press 2004–14   

Priscilla Bright McLaren (1815–1906): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/47643 

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