Women who made a difference
The four Dundee women on this panel helped to improve people’s lives in diverse ways – from healthcare, housing and access to green space, to education and working rights.
1. Mary Ann Baxter
Philanthropist Mary Ann Baxter (1801-1884) lived and died in Ferry Road, Dundee, and she made it her mission to improve life for Dundee people in quite different ways. Her father was William Baxter, a flax and jute baron who owned Lower Dens Works, and Mary Ann benefited from the family’s fortune. She and her siblings donated Baxter Park to the city in 1863, and she also gave money to several local charities, including the Congregational Mission in Hilltown, the YMCA and the Sailors’ Hall. But perhaps her greatest achievement was the generous funding of what is now the University of Dundee. The university opened in 1883, providing ‘the education for persons of both sexes and the study of science, literature and fine arts’.
2. Mary Slessor
Mary Slessor (1848-1915) was born into a poor family in Aberdeen and arrived in Dundee when she was a child. After becoming a skilled jute worker at Baxter’s and attending the old Wishart Church regularly, Mary volunteered to work at the United Presbytery Mission in Calabar, Nigeria and sailed there in 1876. By tending the sick, setting up mission hospitals, fighting for women’s rights and reforming local belief in superstition and human sacrifice, Mary made a huge difference in the communities she served. Unusually, she made the decision to work deep inside the jungle, became fluent in the Efik language and earned the respect of a local chieftain. Recurring illnesses took their toll and Mary died of a fever in 1915, aged just 67.
3. Mary Brooksbank
Another mill-worker, Mary Brooksbank (1897-1978) is remembered today as a socialist songwriter and a prominent member of Dundee’s labour movement. She began working when she was just 12, and marched for a pay rise at the age of 14. At 21, Mary decided to join the Communist Party to fight for women’s rights and contribute to the demise of capitalism. Her objective was always to improve workers’ right and she raised awareness of their plight through her contributions to politics, literature and folk music. Indeed, she is celebrated in Dundee as a poet and musican, and many of her songs are still sung – including the most famous: ‘Oh Dear Me (The Jute Mill Song)’ about the life of a young female jute worker.
4. Mary Lily Walker
After her mother’s death in 1883, Mary Lily Walker (1863-1913) became one of the University of Dundee’s first female students, studying Latin, Maths, Biology and Chemistry. However, she could not ignore the shocking living conditions around her and when a group of university professors founded the Dundee Social Union, Mary became an early member. Thereafter, she campaigned hard for social change in health and housing, and fought to improve the life chances of women and children in Dundee. A new Women’s Hospital, baby clinics and health visitors, school dinners, children’s convalescent holidays and clubs for all age groups were just some of her achievements. Mary’s memory lives on in the Lily Walker Centre, a 24-hour centre which supports people in Dundee who become homeless.