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Edinburgh Seven: the feminist pioneers finally getting their degrees after 150 years

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Lauren Geall
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The feminists who made up the Edinburgh Seven have finally been rewarded posthumous degrees 150 years after they first started studying. 

The first group of women to enroll at any UK university have finally been awarded their degrees – 150 years after they first began their studies. 

The group of women - made up of Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell – enrolled as medical students at the University of Edinburgh in 1869, and in doing so became the first group of women to study at any UK university, despite the significant backlash and barriers put in place in order to limit their success. 

Famously, the women were prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors because of the discrimination they faced at the hands of the university and their male peers – but these weren’t the only problems the women faced during their time at the university. 

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Sophia Jex-Blake, the leader of the seven, began the push to allow women to be admitted to Edinburgh’s medical school when she wrote to the dean of the medical faculty asking whether she could attend lectures. Despite the odds being stacked against her – those who did support her believed women should be restricted to obstetrics and gynaecology, and those who didn’t said the poor intellectual ability and stamina of women would lower professional standards – Jex-Blake gained admission, only to have it overturned when a group of 200 students submitted a petition to the university against the decision. 

When a campaign published by Jex-Blake in The Scotsman appealed for more women to apply in order to justify the expenses of teaching men and women separately (because of course teaching them together was simply unimaginable), six women joined Jex-Blake to become the Edinburgh Seven. 

But the women continued to face considerable adversity even after they’d been matriculated and enrolled as medical students – the university decided to charge them higher fees than those they charged the men, and there was huge inequality in terms of teaching standards and accessibility between male and female students. Members of staff were allowed to refuse to teach women, so the seven had to arrange lectures for themselves. And even though the lecture material was identical, the women were graded differently, making access to scholarships very difficult. 

The Surgeons’ Hall Riot in 1870, which saw protesters surround and disrupt the seven from taking an anatomy exam, saw a flood of support for the women in the face of such incredible discrimination. But despite public support the university continued to discriminate, and four years later, the seven were rejected from graduating. 

Now, 150 years later, the women’s journey at the university has finally come to an end. Seven female students from the current graduating class of Edinburgh Medical School picked up degree certificates on behalf of the Edinburgh Seven on Saturday (6 July), as part of a number of events being held by the university to honour the achievements of women.

Last year, on International Women’s Day, a plaque was unveiled at the university to honour the Edinburgh seven at the site of the Surgeons’ Hall Riot, and serves of a reminder of the discrimination women fought against to gain access to previously male-dominated fields.

Speaking to the Press and Journal, Professor Peter Mathieson, principal and vice-chancellor, echoed that sentiment. 

“The segregation and discrimination that the Edinburgh Seven faced might belong to history,” he said, “but barriers still exist that deter too many talented young people from succeeding at university.

“We must learn from these women and strive to widen access for all who have the potential to succeed.”

Image: Getty

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Lauren Geall

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