International Women's Day 2021

24 February 2021

Monday 8th March is International Women's Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.

Each year has a different theme, the theme for IWD 2021 is 'Choose to Challenge'.

Observed since the early 1900's, IWD has growth in strength and continues to encourage empowerment among women, ensuring that the future for girls worldwide is bright, equal, safe and rewarding.

Vote For Women Sash

Image: Votes for Women sash in the colours of the Women's Social Political Union

Read more about International Women's Day>

To celebrate International Women's Day, we've rounded up just a small selection of some of inspirational ladies from Edinburgh’s history who championed change, changed attitudes and made the world we know today a better place. From doctors to campaigners, sportswomen to artists, businesswoman to reformers…… and lots more in between, all of them are incredibly unique and equally inspiring!

Womens Franchise Procession And Demonstration Oct 1909 Image: Women's Franchise Procession and demonstration in October 1909


Edinburgh’s Inspirational Ladies

Sophia Jex-Blake (1840 –1912)

Sophia Jex Blake

One of the first female doctors in the UK & campaigner for medical education for women.

In March 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake applied to The University of Edinburgh to study medicine.  The University Court rejected her application because it would not accommodate a lone female in the faculty.  Undeterred, she advertised in national papers for other women to join her – and so began the story of The Edinburgh Seven. 

Along with Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell, they were the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university.

Although they were ultimately prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors, the campaign they fought gained national attention and won them many supporters, including Charles Darwin. Their campaign put the rights of women to a university education on the national political agenda, which eventually resulted in legislation to ensure that women could study at university in 1877.

Sophia became Scotland's first practising female doctor. She went on to found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women and the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children, later Bruntsfield Hospital.

Read more about the Edinburgh Seven> 


Chrystal Macmillan (1872 – 1937)

Edinburgh’s first female science graduate

Born in Edinburgh in 1872, the only daughter of nine children, Chrystal was one of the first women to be admitted to study at university in Scotland.

She then went on to achieve more accomplishments including, the first woman to graduate from Edinburgh in science, which she did with first class honours in mathematics and natural philosophy, and the first woman to plead a case before the House of Lords.

Read more about Chrystal Macmillan> 

Agnes Yewande Savage (1906 – 1964)

First woman of West African heritage to train and qualify in orthodox medicine.

Born in Edinburgh in 1906, Agnes graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a first class honours in all subjects, won a prize in ‘Diseases of the Skin’, and a medal in Forensic Medicine - the first woman in the history of Edinburgh to do so. She was also awarded the Dorothy Gilfillan Memorial Prize as the best woman graduate in 1929.

Upon her graduation at the age of 23, she was the first West African woman to train and qualify in orthodox medicine.

She nevertheless faced huge institutional barriers due to her race and gender. When appointed in 1930 as a junior medical officer in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Agnes was paid discriminatory wages and lived in servants’ quarters. In 1931 she was recruited her as a teacher and a medical officer in 1931, as well as supervising the establishment of the Nurses Training School at Korle Bu, Accra, where a ward is now named after her.

Finally, in 1945, Savage was given the same terms of employment, salary, and retirement as her white colleagues.

Read more about Agnes Yewande Savage > 


Elsie Inglis (1864 – 1917)

Elsie Inglis

Medical reformer, advocate for women’s rights and founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals.

Born in India, where her father was in the service of the East India Company, the Inglis family moved to Edinburgh in 1878.

Elsie enrolled in Dr Sophia Jex-Blake's Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. After qualifying, she started work at the New Hospital for Women in London, then the Rotunda in Dublin, a leading maternity hospital. She returned to Edinburgh in 1894 to set up a medical practice with fellow student Jessie Maclaren MacGregor. She also opened a maternity hospital for poor women, and a midwifery resource centre.

A philanthropist, she often waived fees and would pay for her patients to recuperate by the seaside.

At nearly 50 years old Elsie tried to join the WW1 efforts but was rejected. Undeterred, she formed independent hospital units across Europe staffed by women, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH).

Read more about Elsie Inglis>


Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852 - 1936)

 Pheobe Traquair Mural

Professional Artist.

Born in Ireland, Phoebe studied art in Dublin but came to Scotland at the time of her marriage to the palaeontologist Dr Ramsay Traquair, who was Keeper of Natural History at the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (known today as the National Museum of Scotland). She spent most of her working life in Edinburgh.

A leading figure within the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement, she became the first woman member of the Scottish Royal Academy in Edinburgh, reflecting her status as a leading professional designer at a time when art and design were still dominated by men.

She produced an enormous amount of work and was prolific in enamelling, book binding embroidery, illustrated manuscripts, quilting and mural painting. Her famous mural paintings still adorn the walls of The Mansfield Traquair Centre, St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

Read more about Phoebe Traquair> 


Elizabeth (Bessie) Watson (1900 – 1992)

Elizabeth Bessie Watson

Scotland's youngest suffragette

Born in Edinburgh, Bessie was encouraged to take up piping at the age of 7 or 8 by her parents, who hoped that playing the instrument would strengthen her lungs against tuberculosis.

Bessie and her mother joined their Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and Bessie, at the age of 9, was asked to play the pipes in the pageant.

She continued to be involved in the Suffragette movement and played the pipes on the platform of Waverley Station as trains departed taking convicted women's rights campaigners to Holloway Prison, as well as piping outside the Calton Jail in support of the Suffragettes imprisoned there.

Read more about Elizabeth (Bessie) Watson> 


Mary Burton (1819 – 1909)

Social Reformer & first female director of Heriot-Watt University.

Born in Aberdeen but moved to Edinburgh in 1832 with her widowed mother and brother, Mary dedicated her life to improving access to education for women and supporting the poor.

She persuaded the Watt Institution and School of Arts (forerunner of Heriot-Watt University) to open its classes to female students in 1869 and became its first woman director in 1874.


Mary Erskine (1629 – 1707)

Mary Erskine

Businesswoman and Philanthropist

In 1694 Mary generously donated to the Edinburgh Merchant Company's foundation of the Merchant Maiden Hospital, which became the school for daughters of Edinburgh burgesses. In 1896 the hospital was transformed into Edinburgh Ladies' College and in 1944 its name was changed to Mary Erskine School.

In 1704 Mary Erskine founded the Trades Maiden Hospital with the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh, to provide boarding and education for the daughters and granddaughters of "decayed" craftsmen and tradesmen.


Ellen Elizabeth King (1909 – 1994)

Olympic Swimmer

Ellen King was an outstanding swimmer who won six British swimming championships, 2 world records and 2 silver medals in the 1928 Olympics.

Born in Renfrew, Ellen spent most of her life in Edinburgh where she became a member of the Warrender Baths Club. She represented Britain at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, finishing 6th in the 100 yards backstroke, despite being ill.  In 1927 and 1928 she broke the world records for the 220 yards breaststroke and the 150 yards backstroke.

Ellen turned professional in 1934 to concentrate on teaching swimming. She was the coach at the Warrender and Edinburgh University Ladies' swimming clubs and the Scottish national team coach for several years.

Read more about Ellen Elizabeth King>


Mary King (born towards the end of the 16th century)


Mary King is commonly known today for the famous Edinburgh close named after her.

Closes were named after the most prominent citizen or the most commonly found business to be on the close.  Documents show that Mary King was a prominent businesswoman in the 1630’s.  At that time, she was a widow and a mother of four, who traded in fabrics and sewed for a living.

It was highly unusual for a close to be named after a woman at that time, indicating Mary’s standing in the town.

Mary King's Close is a number of closes which were originally narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to seven storeys high in the Old Town area of Edinburgh. The closes were partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange, later being closed to the public for many years. Today, it is one of Edinburgh’s popular tourist attractions.


Read more about The Real Mary King’s Close> 


Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982)

Arctic Traveller & Botanist

Born at Carlowrie Castle, near Kirkliston and educated in Edinburgh, Isobel developed a love of travel and adventure at a young age. She had soon covered Scotland and began to look at bigger challenges.

In 1925 she decided to visit Iceland, before moving onto Greenland. A woman willing to tackle such an environment was an unusual and almost scandalous phenomenon, but she persevered, examining historical sites and trading with Inuit people. She recorded what she learned and expressed the beauty of what she saw in poetry and paintings. She also filmed the people of the Arctic as they went about their daily lives. This is some of the earliest documentary footage ever recorded.

Read more about Isobel Wylie Hutchison> 


Interested in learning more about some of Edinburgh’s leading ladies? In conjunction with Edinburgh Living History, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh are showing a number of special digital performance from Sunday 7 March to Tuesday 9 March 2021 to celebrate International Women's Day 2021.

So, this IWD, lets celebrate these great women who challenged conventions and grabbed life by both hands. Something that we can all learn by, don’t you think?