Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! This month to mark International Women’s Day, I am telling you the incredible story of the Edinburgh Seven, the first women to matriculate at a British university . Check out our video and read our interactive blog for some great English practice.
The Edinburgh Seven
In this month’s Real English blog, and on International Women’s Day, we tell you about the incredible Edinburgh Seven, educational heroes and trailblazers who have been criminally forgotten in the history books!
Let’s set the scene
Our story takes place in 19th century Edinburgh. At this point, Edinburgh university was considered one of the best medical schools in the world. This reputation has stuck and its still seen as an excellent place to learn to be a doctor. And of course, Victorian society beleived women to be intellectually and emotionally very different from men. Specifically, they were seen as inferior and a slave to their emotions, often being described as the weaker sex. It’s in the face of these countless obstacles, 7 women were about to change history.
It all starts with Sophia Jex Blake
Sophia was born 1840 in the English town of Hastings and had a comfortable upbringing. Despite her parents’ protests, she enrolled in Queen’s College in London, the first educational institute in Great Britain where girls and women could gain academic qualifications. She was offered a teaching position which she accepted, but her was father horrified when he discovered she was going to get paid and would only allow her to work if she refused the money.
Instead, at the age of 21, she went to the US and worked for a time as an administrative assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. There she met another incredible woman, Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall. Dr Sewall was a physician and activist for health and social reform in Boston, and one of the earliest women to get a US Medical degree. Her social position and medical abilities made it easier and more acceptable for other women to gain acceptance as doctors.
Dr Sewell inspired Sophia
She began to look for a university to study medicine at when she got back to England. But every single university she applied to said no. Rather than give up, she looked north of the border and applied to Edinburgh university. They said no BUT she wrote to ask to attend summer lectures, and this went to a vote.
And she had some support, although many of the supporters agreed to her only studying obstetrics and gynecology. But the vast majority disagreed. Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Robert Christison, claimed that professional standards would be lowered if the university were to train women. According to him, women had a naturally low intellectual ability and stamina. Surgeon William Walker thought a coed class would be “repugnant to patients”. “many examinations and operations are offensive in nature and could not be undertaken before a mixed class without violating the feelings of propriety and decorum.” 200 male students agreed and signed a petition against Sophia (ONE WOMAN) taking a class.
The University Court finally declared that the university could not possibly change their teaching practices “in the interest of one lady”. Because, of course, a woman couldn’t possibly learn in the same room as a man.
But rather than throw in the towel, Sophia got pro-active
With the help of her friend David Masson, an ally of women in the suffrage movement, she advertised in the newspapers to reach women interested in joining her. She thought that if enough were interested, the university would run out of arguments.
She started to get some replies from women who were just as bad ass as she was. The first was Edith Pechey, who wrote humbly to Jex-Blake:
“Do you think anything more is requisite to ensure success than moderate abilities and a good share of perseverance? I believe I may lay claim to these, together with a real love of the subjects of study. But as regards any thorough knowledge of these subjects at present, I fear I am deficient in most. I am afraid I should not without a good deal of previous study be able to pass the preliminary exam.”
Not only did she pass….She scored the highest ever mark in the entry exam . She was one of five women to take the exam, including Sophia Jex Blake.
These five women were the first members of the Edinburgh Seven: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin and Helen Evans. Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell joined shortly afterwards. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to become trailblazers for the equal education of women. Together, they were the first women to matriculate at a British university.
There was still a long way to go
But this was only the first step on what would be a very long journey. Thrre were plenty of hurdles to overcome
Firstly, the women had to pay exorbitant fees. This was justified by the argument that they had to have individual classes as they weren’t allowed to study with the male students. . In open exams, the women outperformed the men, but the university graded them differently. This meant they were not eligible for academic prizes and it was extremely difficult to get scholarships. Jex-Blake took on the role of leader, organizing extra tutoring in maths and sorting out lectures.
Their male classmates didn’t respond well to the women outperforming them (what’s new?). They started a campaign of intimidation, probably encouraged by professors. This included shutting doors in their faces, crowding around their usual seats, and loudly laughing and howling when they came near. They also regularly followed the women home, and even attached a firework to Sophia’s door. They sent them horrible letters and shouted “whore” at them in the street. To protect themselves, the women took precautions by not going to the campus alone and staying in at night . Again, what’s new?
Riot at Surgeon’s Hall
This harassment and intimidation culminated in an attack in 1870 as the Edinburgh Seven tried to get into an anatomy exam. 200 male students and locals blocked the street, stopping them from entering and throwing mud, rubbish and insults at them. Despite what must have been a terrifying experience, these tenacious ladies refused to give up. The eventually managed to make their way through the crowd into the exam. What was the protestors’ reaction? They threw a sheep into the exam hall. Seriously. A sheep.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The attack brought the women’s case into the public eye. Many male students were horrified by what had happened and acted as informal bodyguards for the Seven (go allies!). The Scotsman urged all men to come forward and express “their detestation of the proceedings which have characterised and dishonoured the opposition to ladies pursuing the study of medicine in Edinburgh”.
And people did. Supporters founded a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Among its 300 influential members was Charles Darwin himself. The committee helped to plan the women’s campaign and fundraise for it.
But they still met a great deal of resistance
The men who had been protesting weren’t satisfied with this. They sent a petition to the university basically saying that they couldn’t have women in their classes. It distracted them too much and that this was the women’s fault, not theirs. They made a poorly veiled threat that if the uni didn’t cancel mixed classes , they would cause trouble. And unsurprisingly, the university voted 27 to 4 against mixed classes.
Not only that, the man Jex-Blake had identified as the ring leader of the protests, a guy called Edward Cunningham Craig, sued Sophia for defamation. He said that she had accused him of being drunk and using bad language at the riot. The court found in favour of Cunnigham, but only awarded him a farthing in damages. This suggests that they weren’t on his side. Cunningham was probably not the real instigator of these events. It’s more likely Dr Robert Christison, who had opposed them attending from the very beginning, had masterminded everything, .
In 1873, the Edinburgh Seven passed all of their final exams.
They had endured abuse from classmates and the professors. They had paid exorbitant fees, and beaten all the odds passing more difficult exams than their male counterparts. But just as the finishing line was in the sight, the university pulled the rug from under their feet; it wouldn’t let them graduate. The excuse they gave was that women couldn’t work on wards. The Seven and their supporters took the fight to higher courts, but they were overruled. The university retrospectively said they should never have had women in the first place.
It would be more than understandable that after all of that, these women decided to call it a day. But did they give up? Hell no! They took the battle elsewhere. Jex-Blake moved to London in 1874 to help set up the London School of Medicine for Women. She was joined by Elizabeth Garret Anderson and Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US. Jex-Blake continued to train the next generation of women in medicine. She also continued to campaign and study herself. This was despite there still being nowhere to sit the medical license exam for women in Britain.
Finally, in 1876 the UK Medical Act was passed. It allowed all qualified applicants ,regardless of gender, to obtain a medical license in the UK. Dublin was the first place to offer this. Before doing that, Jex-Blake and Pechey went to Bern in Switzerland to finish their MD (medical doctorate) in 1877. 4 months later they sat their exams in Dublin. Jex-Blake was the third woman in Britain to become an official doctor.
The Edinburgh Seven all went on to do great things
Jex-Blake left the London School of Medicine for Women in the capable hands of Isabel Thorne. She headed back to Edinburgh’s New Town to become the city’s first female doctor, sertting up a clinic for poor patients, and was integral in founding the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. This was where Elsie Inglis, Scotland’s most famous female doctor, would go on to study. She also established the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women. This was Scotland’s first hospital for women that was entirely staffed by women.
The other 6 were also amazing!
Edith Pechey practised medicine in Leeds before moving to Mumbai. There she became a senior medical officer at the new Cama Women and Children’s Hospital. There she started a training programme for female nurses, campaigned for equal pay for women in medical professions, and sponsored one of the first female doctors to practice in India, Rukhmabai, another absolute bad ass. Even after she died in 1908, Pechey continued to support women entering the medical profession thanks to her husband who set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women.
Look how many schools they founded!
Bovell and Anderson worked at London’s New Hospital for Women, and Chaplin founded a midwifery school in Tokyo then gained her MD in Paris, sat exams in Ireland, and set up a private practice in London. Thorne and Evans weren’t able to complete their studies, but they worked in administration roles at the London and Edinburgh Schools of Medicine for Women, continuing to oversee new generations of female doctors for years to come — including two of Thorne’s own daughters.
The legacy of the Edinburgh Seven
One of the most inspiring aspects of this story for me is that throughout their lives, all seven women gave back to their community through education. They knew the value of having access to learning, and ensured that their knowledge would go on to open doors to many more women. And not only for those who wanted to become doctors. They paved the way for women to enter all forms of further education. As for the University of Edinburgh? It resisted the waves of change. It began to allow women to graduate — 25 years after Jex-Blake’s initial application — and its first female doctors graduated in 1896.
One last kick in the teeth, though: they still had to organise their own classes.
The story of The Edinburgh Seven is inspirational, but also tragic.
Many of the hardships that they had to go through are still extremely relevant and recognisable to the female experience in 2021. Their story was also lost to history for many years. Edinburgh University finally gave them posthumous degrees in July 2019, ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS after they should have graduated. And the only mark to them is a tiny plaque in Surgeon’s Hall. Compare that to the endless statues and books about the medical men of Edinburgh.
Despite this incredible story, a quick google will show you that there are a pitiful amount of resources to educate you about these women. We still have very far to go when it comes to recognising and celebrating the contributions of women in history. I hope that this humble blog entry can go at least some way to correcting that.