International Women's Day 2022

01 March 2022

Tuesday 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 2022 is #BreakTheBias.

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 both Women's History Month this March and International Women's Day on 8 March 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

Saroj Lal (1937 - 2020)

Saroj Lal

Pioneering educator, activist and campaigner in Scottish race relations.

A truly remarkable woman, Saroj Lal challenged perceptions and stereotypes throughout her life, leading Edinburgh’s crusade against racism, injustice and discrimination.

She was one of the first teachers in Edinburgh from a BAME (black, Asian and/or minority ethnic) background, when she started at South Morningside Primary in August 1970.

Saroj was a trailblazing figure in Edinburgh’s recent history – her achievements within the city are numerous, including: the founding and development of the Edinburgh Hindu Temple and the establishment of its permanent home in Leith; establishing Edinburgh’s first dedicated ethnic library at McDonald Road; founding the Asian Cultural Girls’ Club at Drummond Community High School and the ground-breaking Continuation Course for Asian girls at Telford College.

Read more about Saroj Lal pioneering life in a podcast for TES Scotland, recorded by Saroj’s son, Vineet Lal >

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, Elsie and her family moved to Edinburgh in 1878.

After qualifying from Dr Sophia Jex-Blake's Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, in 1894 Elsie 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>

Edinburgh boasts one of the most important collections of statues and monuments in the world. But with more animal than women statues in the city, who better than Elsie Inglis to redress the balance. Learn more about the campaign and see how you can get involved in the Statue for 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).

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 and St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

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 at the age of 9, Bessie 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 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 (died 1644)

TRMKC Mary King

Businesswoman

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

Not only was she a successful cloth merchant but in 1629 after her husband, Thomas Nimmo passed away, Mary became a burgess. This gave her a seat on the Edinburgh council, a very rare achievement for a woman at this time and made her one of the first women with voting rights in the city.

Read more about The Real Mary King >

This month, join Mary King’s Close for A (Her)story Tour, a 1-hour guided tour exploring the real stories of some of the women who shaped Edinburgh’s history between the 16th and 19th centuries.

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.

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 - some of the earliest documentary footage ever recorded.

Read more about Isobel Wylie Hutchison> 

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?