The 2012 International Women’s Day Living Statues event, outside City Chambers, was within two minutes walk (or less) of at least five of the 200+ statues of men that Edinburgh City Council has, over the centuries, caused to be set up in our streets. (These five are: Adam Smith, Charles II, David Hume, Alexander the Great, and James Braidwood. But anywhere in the city centre you can find statues of men: but only two of women.)
Left to right: Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912), the first woman to attend medical school in Edinburgh; Eliza Wigham (1820-1899), an Edinburgh Quaker who actively campaigned to abolish slavery in the US; Chrystal MacMillan (1872 – 1937), the first woman to graduate in science from the University of Edinburgh and the first woman to graduate in honours in Mathematics; Jenny Geddes (c.1600 – c.1660), market-trader in Edinburgh, who stood up and threw her stool at the head of the minister in St Giles’ in objection to the first public use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in Scotland. (And a 21st-century Marxist feminist who doesn’t yet have a statue.)
On Sunday 23rd July 1637, at the first service using Charles I’s Booke of Common Prayer in St Giles Cathedral, as the Dean began to read the Collect, Jenny Geddes picked up her stool and flung it at him, shouting
“Deil colic the wame o’ ye, fause thief. Daur ye say Mass in my lug.”
And then a riot started. The Provost called out the City Guard who threw the rioters out of St Giles, but the riots continued and spread ot other cities, rejecting the King’s order of service and the imposition of bishops by the king on the Church of Scotland. In February 1638, at Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed and copies were distributed throughout Scotland: the Covenanters raised an army to resist the English religious reforms, Charles I raised an army to suppress the Scottish rebellion… and this thrown stool by a market woman sparked off the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, including the English Civil War, the Scottish Civil War and Irish Confederate Wars. Jenny Geddes is commemorated in St Giles… by a stool.
Sophia Jex-Blake was admitted to Edinburgh University’s medical school in 1869. She met with some support from the faculty, but also with outraged and at times violent opposition from faculty and students. In 1878 she established a private practice in Edinburgh – the first woman to practice as a doctor in Scotland – and opened the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children in 1885. The hospital moved to Whitehouse Loan in 1899 and became known as the Bruntsfield Hospital: a ward was named after Doctor Jex-Blake and in 1948 the hospital was absorbed into the NHS; it closed in 1989.
On 10th March 2006, Lesley Hinds, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, wrote to the Harriet Tubman Historical Society:
It gives me great pleasure to send greetings to you all, from Edinburgh, on the occasion of Harriet Tubman Day.
You are all aware of the extraordinary work Harriet Tubman did, and of the durable friendship she had with Eliza Wigham, a noteworthy resident of Edinburgh. Her home was in South Gray Street, a pleasant residential suburb of the city.
Eliza was a very prominent figure in the Anti-Slavery Movement, the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, and the Quaker Society. She and her friends supported Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad financially, and Eliza herself worked tirelessly in Scotland for equality among all peoples regardless of race or sex.
A little after noon the Woman In Stone who was being Doctor James Barry (c. 1789-1799 – 1865) arrived.
Doctor Barry graduated from Edinburgh University in 1812, and became a very successful military surgeon in a career spanning 50 years (1813-1864), rising to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals before retirement.
Sophia Jex-Blake and James Barry both studied medicine in Edinburgh. Doctor Barry died as modern language to discuss gender and sexual identity was being invented, so we are never likely to know if the person who was named Margaret Ann Bulkley and became James Barry was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to become a surgeon, a trans man, or an intersex person.
Chrystal Macmillan was born in Edinburgh and was among the first women admitted to University of Edinburgh in 1892: she took a BSc in 1896 with first-class honours in mathematics and natural philosophy, the first woman to do so from Edinburgh University.
In 1908 she became the first woman to present a legal case to the House of Lords: she argued that the statute which in 1868 gave all graduates of the four Scottish universities the right to elect university MPs included women, as the word “person” was used throughout the statute. The case was rejected: MacMillan moved to London and became actively involved in the suffragist movement and gave evidence to several committees of enquiry on matters of concern to women: she was also involved in the campaign against the law that removed a woman’s citizenship if she married someone not a British citizen.
During and after WWI MacMillan was actively involved in the peace movement: she was a delegate at the Paris Peace Conference and at the International Congress of Women in Zürich in 1919, which issued the first public criticism of the Versailles Treaty. She was also one of the first women called to the English Bar, in 1924.
In the view of the youth of today: the lack of statues to these extraordinary women is disgraceful.