Four generations of women

battling the odds to become University of Aberdeen graduates

Student Freja Lundberg does not have to look far for inspirational female role models. Her great grandmother, grandmother and mother were all pioneering graduates of the University of Aberdeen.

They each faced their own struggles to break through the glass ceiling, demonstrating their extraordinary academic talents along the way.

Each generation encountered different challenges – from a lack of access to higher education for women to studies interrupted by the Second World War.

As the fourth generation of Aberdeen women, Freja is now facing a battle of her own time – Long Covid.

For International Women’s Day, we look at Freja’s extraordinary family tree and the insights their stories offer to this year’s theme #BreaktheBias

Ahead of her time: Jeannie Barclay

As one of 14 children growing up on a croft near Keith in Aberdeenshire, university was not an expected path for Freja’s great grandmother Jeannie Barclay.

At a rural school at the turn of the 20th century, she’d have faced pressures to follow the well-trodden route of a life working in the fields or in domestic servitude.

But Jeannie was bright. Very bright. Not only did she succeed in gaining entry to Keith Grammar School, she became the school Dux – a traditional academic award given to a pupil whose achievements are the highest.

Despite this, gaining entry to university was far from easy. The movement for the higher education of women had begun in earnest in Britain and the United States during the 1840s, but progress was slow in Scotland.

It was not until February 1892 that the Scottish Universities Commissioners published an Ordinance authorising the universities to make provision for the instruction and graduation of women. 

And the majority of those early female entrants came from middle class origins, far removed from Jeannie’s crofting life.

She overcame all of these challenges and was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Aberdeen in 1910.

Here she excelled, studying for both a science and arts degree at the same time and receiving special distinction in both maths and geology.

In a letter dated February 9, 1914, A.W Gibb, lecturer in Geology, describes her as one of the ‘most able’ students to have ever passed through his laboratory stating that ‘in a class of over sixty men and women she gained the First prize in Systematic Geology’.

He wrote: “Jeannie attained an average of over 90 per cent in her Geology exams and was awarded special distinction in Geology for her Science Degree.

“Miss Barclay is a woman of high character and is possessed of personal qualities which have made it a pleasure to be associated with her in scientific work.”

She graduated in 1914 just months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which would plunge the world into war.

Jeannie dreamed of becoming a museum curator and quickly threw herself into applying for roles in the sector across the UK, including at the Natural History Museum in London.

She held a good degree and a raft of glowing references from her University tutors and former teachers.

Alexander Emslie, a former rector of Keith Grammar School wrote: “Miss Barclay is a young lady of outstanding ability, pleasing manner and excellent good humour. She has had nothing but her own powers to help her forward, and I am confident that these will yet carry her into a position of high responsibility which she will fill with great efficiency and complete acceptance.”

Despite her obvious talents, Jeannie was a woman ahead of her time and was unable to secure an offer of museum work.

Instead she applied to the University of Cambridge where she was awarded a scholarship by Homerton College, a renowned teacher-training institute.

Jeannie returned to her native north-east in 1915 to teach at the Gordon Schools in Huntly until she married John Stephen in 1920. They had met at university in Aberdeen and were married in Botriphnie Church.

But marriage meant the end of Jeannie’s teaching career. Freja reflects that her great grandmother’s achievements are bitter-sweet.

“She was clearly a woman of fierce intellect and she achieved so much – pushing the boundaries for the women of later generations. But she must have been incredibly frustrated to see the doors to her chosen career closed,” she says.

“Following her journey shows just how many challenges even the most successful women faced and that even when they had overcome these to succeed academically, society still required that they give up that hard-fought progress upon entering marriage.”

The science laboratory at Keith Grammar School as shown in the 1908 prospectus, where women like Jeannie Barclay were first inspired
Jeannie Barclay
Jeannie Barclay on her graduation day in 1914

Inspiring the next generations

Although Jeannie was prevented from pursuing her first-choice career, it is likely she inspired her female students to follow in her pioneering footsteps in continuing their education.

One of those was her own daughter, Margaret Stephen. Though the pathway to Higher Education for women was a little easier than it had been for Jeannie, she faced another challenge – studying for her degree through the Second World War.

Margaret studied through the day and at night took on a very different duty as a fire watcher in the Cruickshank Botanic Garden.

Freja recalls that her grandmother regularly talked of her night duties carrying buckets of water around the gardens as part of a patrol drilled by a guard known affectionately as ‘old stumpy’.

The threat from the skies posed a very real threat to Margaret and her fellow students - Aberdeen suffered the greatest number of Air Raids in Scotland during the Second World War, coming under attack on 34 occasions.

The demands of war meant that Margaret undertook an accelerated programme which saw the honours degree condensed to three years to facilitate essential work during the summer.

Margaret graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1945 and her papers show that her chemistry class celebrated the completion of their studies – and presumably the end of war time – with a special Christmas lunch in December.

Margaret also went on to become a teacher. Though she too gave up the profession once married, she was able to return later in her life and was a familiar face to many as a supply teacher in Aberdeenshire and Caithness.

The desire to study was passed down to the next generation of women with daughter Sheila following in the family footsteps to the University of Aberdeen, where she was awarded an MA in 1984 and also went on to teach.

Unlike her mother and grandmother, Shelia was able to continue her professional career and is now head of the Highland Deaf Education Service.

Freja says it is remarkable how her own family story demonstrates the changes and challenges women have faced in recent generations.

“It is eye opening to see how opportunities for women in both education and work have transformed within a relatively short period of time,” she adds.

“Looking at the stories of these three talented women from my own family – all of whom came to the University of Aberdeen – is both inspiring and difficult.

“My great grandmother in particular was never able to fulfil her very great potential. Career choices for women have improved but as we reflect on International Women’s Day, it is clear this journey is far from over.”

Bomb damage in Marischal Street from 20 July 1941 (courtesy of the Aberdeen Harbour Board collection)
Margaret Stephen on her graduation day
Sheila on her graduation day in 1984
Freja Lundberg

Freja Lundberg

Freja Lundberg

A new challenge of our time

Freja is now the fourth generation of women to have studied at the University of Aberdeen working towards a degree in Geography and International Relations.

Having undertaken an internship with Museums and Special Collections during her third year, she was focused on a career in the field her great grandmother had dreamed of.

But during her final year in 2021 she contracted Covid-19 which developed into Long Covid. The illness has forced Freja to put her studies on hold as she battles this new challenge of our time.

“I was aware of the difficulties faced by previous generations because of my own family story,” she says. “Looking at their lives as part of my internship had made me incredibly grateful for my own opportunities.

“But like everyone else, I could never have predicted the challenges Covid-19 would present.”

Freja is facing a daily battle of mental and physical fatigue which causes brain fog and many other symptoms which mean she now uses a wheelchair.

“Growing up with a disability then developing Long Covid on top has reinforced to me the challenges many women face today which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“At University for example just getting around an ancient campus such as Aberdeen can be a real challenge.

“We have come a long way but there is much to be done to ensure everyone can access education and employment opportunities, particularly disabled women, and I am glad that International Women’s Day is shining a light on some of today’s issues.”

International Women's Day poster with the words 8-11 March #breakthebiass