Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell were the first women undergraduates at any university in the UK, and they all studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, starting in 1869. However, they were banned from graduating after male students started a riot by pelting the women with mud when they turned up to take their anatomy exam.
The Court of Session ruled they should never have been admitted, and they did not graduate or qualify as doctors, but their campaign gained national attention, with supporters including Charles Darwin. It put the demands of women for a university education on the national agenda, resulting in legislation to ensure that women could study medicine at university in 1876.
One hundred and fifty years later, in 2019, the seven women were finally awarded their honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh.
Elsie Inglis, another pioneer who took on the medical establishment, became a doctor, teacher, suffragist and founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals in the First World War, when she was turning 50. The SWH treated tens of thousands of soldiers in France, Belgium, Serbia andRussia.
Inglis, who was born in India, qualified as a doctor in 1892and was appointed to a hospital in London.
She was so shocked at the conditions and standards of healthcare for female patients that she returned to Edinburgh and set up her own medical practice alongside another female doctor.
Ten years later she founded a small maternity clinic for Edinburgh’s poor in order tomake medicine more accessible – her practice was staffed entirely by women.
Inglis often waived the fees owed to her and would pay for her patients to recuperate by the sea. She was a consultant at the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women and Children, which merged with her practice in 1910.
Inglis’s surgical skills were recognised by colleagues, one of whom said: “she was quiet, calm, and collected, and never at a loss, skilfulin her manipulations, and able to cope with any emergency.”
Dame Margaret Kidd paved the way for aspiring female lawyers by establishing and maintaining female roles in a male dominated industry. Women were not even recognised as people within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843 until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was introduced in 1919. Kidd graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA and LLB in law in 1922.
A year later she was called to the faculty of advocates, the Scottish bar, becoming the first woman to do so. She remained the only female member for 25 years.
Kidd went on to achieve many firsts, as she was the first female advocate to appear before the House of Lords and before a select committee of the House of Commons, and later Britain’s first female King’s Council. Kidd continued her work by encouraging aspiring female lawyers with speeches and motivating the next generation.
Eliza Wigham was a key activist for women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement in 19th century Edinburgh. She heroically campaigned against slavery in the US, by joining the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society. Wigham was one of the main members who iconically carvedthe words “send back the money” into Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags in the 1840s. She wrote this message after finding out that the Free Church had received funding from slaved-owned congregations in America. In later years, Wigham, worked to change laws that affected women, including sex workers.
She also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to own property.
Charlotte Auerbach played a key role in founding the science of mutagenesis. Auerbach, who was Jewish, fled her native Germany in 1933 in her early thirties after the Nazis tightened anti-semitic laws. She completed her PhD at the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. She then stayed on at the university in order to research the effects of mustard gas on fruit flies, discovering that it caused mutations.
She supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was a fierce opponent of apartheid.
In 1976 Auerbach was awarded the Royal Society’s Darwin Medal for her contributions to science.
Swedish-born Jannica Honey has won praise for her striking photographs of women. Honey moved to Edinburgh to study photography and digital imaging after completing a BA in anthropology & criminology at Stockholm University in 1998.
In 2011 Honey spent several months photographing lap dancers in Edinburgh for an exhibition premiered at the Fringe, providing a candid and unusual perspective.
She is a champion of the Girlgaze platform, which seeks to end gender inequality in the creative industries. The same year, Honey photographed 100 women for an international women's day event at Tramway in Glasgow. Her latest project, When the Blackbird Sings, portrays the multiple aspects of the female cycle through photographs of women and nature.
Both students at the University of Edinburgh, Grieve and Ahlert are co-founders of the Back Off Scotland campaign, which is demanding the Scottish government introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics in Scotland. Their campaign began in Edinburgh when Grieve and Ahlert were shocked to discover anti-abortion protests outside the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre during the pandemic.
Ahlert also works for another grassroots organisation, CERT, the Contraception Education Reform Team, an Edinburgh-based campaign aiming to improve people’s experiences with contraception.
Grieve hopes their campaign will promote more open and inclusive conversations about access to abortion and sexual health.
Mar Felices has championed Hispanic culture since she moved to Edinburgh from Spain in 2012. Back then, her focus was to learn English, find a job and develop a documentary about her grandfather. Felices soon became aware that although there was a rich and vibrant calendar of cultural events in Edinburgh, it lacked anything on documentaries and Hispanic culture. She teamed up with Mon Rivas to create IberoDocs, which is the only documentary film festival in Edinburgh and the only platform of Ibero-American culture in Scotland. It is run mostly by women.
Oliver is the owner and bookseller at Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop. Lighthouse is a queer-owned and women-led bookshop that is centred around being a community space that is unapologetically focused on activism and inclusivity.
Oliver has ensured that the bookshop is an intersectional feminist space by placing women’s writing at the centre and championing women’s stories.
The Lighthouse runs a variety of book clubs such as women in translation and workshops like “Hollaback feminist zine-making”. Oliver and her team have shown the importance of feminist spaces and bookshops on our high streets.
Joanna Zawadzka works as the campaigns and engagement officer at Zero Tolerance. Its mission isto eradicate violence against women by tackling its root cause – gender inequality. Throughout Zawadzka’s job, she has worked hard to ensure that all women’s voices are heard, so that no one is left behind. On International Women’s day, Zawadzka wanted to emphasise that there is still a long way to go before equality is achieved:
“Violence [against women] is happening every day and can happen to any woman, anywhere regardless of their status, age, religion, profession or background.” – Joanna Zawadzka