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The "Governess General" of Canada

For the week of Monday April 14, 2014

On April 18, 1939, Lady Ishbel Maria Aberdeen (née Marjoribanks) died after a lifetime of political involvement and social activism. She used her intelligence, charisma, and high social standing to champion many causes, especially women’s rights.

Lady Aberdeen
© Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-025771
Born in London in 1857, Ishbel had an upper-class education and was a promising student. When her father refused to send her to college she began charitable work, one of the few occupations open to aristocratic women. It was then unacceptable for women to live independently, so when Ishbel reached adulthood it was important for her to make a good match and develop social connections. She met John Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen, and the two married in 1877.

After years of travelling and serving in government, Lord Aberdeen was appointed the Governor General of Canada. The Aberdeens and their four children arrived in Ottawa in 1893. Ishbel threw extravagant historical costume balls and played hockey, but also became famous for her social activism. Locally, she organized an education union for female teachers and started a club for young women to do community service. At the national level she established the Aberdeen Association for Distribution of Good Literature to Settlers in the West, which provided homesteaders with reading material. While president of the International Council of Women, she helped found the National Council of Women to advocate for social reforms in Canada. She also campaigned for the creation of the Victorian Order of Nurses, an organization that still provides nursing care to the poor and the isolated.

Lady Aberdeen, sitting centre, and the Committee of the National Council of Women
© Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada / PA-028035

Often considered the real force in the couple, Ishbel also involved herself in her husband’s politics. Canadian historian John Saywell described her as the “Governess General.” She even became the first woman to receive an honorary degree in Canada. In 1898 Lord and Lady Aberdeen were recalled to England and, after serving as Viceroy of Ireland, they went into retirement in Scotland.

Lady Ishbel Aberdeen was designated a National Historic Person in acknowledgement of her extensive social work in Canada. The Founding of the Victorian Order of Nurses was commemorated as a National Historic Event. The official residence of the governor general, Rideau Hall and Landscaped Grounds, is a National Historic Site.

To learn more about the nurses, please read The Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada. To discover other Canadian women like Lady Aberdeen, see The First Women's Institute and A Pioneer of Women's University Education.

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