International Women's Day

01 January 2023

08 March is International Women's Day (IWD), a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

With a new theme each year, IWD 2023 is #EmbraceEquity.

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 08 March we've rounded up just a small selection 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, businesswomen to reformers, and lots more in-between, all of them are 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.

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 Edinburgh's first teachers from a BAME (black, Asian and/or minority ethnic) background when she started at South Morningside Primary in 1970.

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; founding the Asian Cultural Girls’ Club at Drummond Community High School and the ground-breaking Continuation Course for Asian girls at Telford College.

Hear more about Saroj Lal's 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 UK’s first female doctors. Campaigner for medical education for women.

In March 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake applied to The University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Her application was rejected as the university would not accommodate a lone female in the faculty.  Undeterred, she advertised 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. Their campaign put the right of allowing women a university education on the national political agenda - resulting in legislation in 1877 that permitted women to study at university.

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.

Chrystal Macmillan (1872 – 1937)

Edinburgh’s first female science graduate.

Born in Edinburgh in 1872, the only daughter of nine children, Chrystal Macmillan 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.

Agnes Yewande Savage (1906 – 1964)

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

Born in Edinburgh in 1906, Agnes Yewande Savage graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a first class honours degree, 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. 

Upon her graduation at the age of 23, she was the first West African woman to train and qualify in orthodox medicine. Nevertheless, she faced huge race and gender barriers. When appointed in 1930 as a junior medical officer in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Agnes was paid low wages and lived in servants’ quarters. In 1931, she was recruited as a teacher and a medical officer, 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 colleagues.

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 Inglis 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. 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).

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.

Irish-born Phoebe Anna Traquair 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 female member of Edinburgh's Royal Scottish Academy, 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.

Elizabeth (Bessie) Watson (1900 – 1992)

Elizabeth Bessie Watson

Scotland's youngest suffragette.

Born in Edinburgh, Elizabeth (Bessie) Watson was encouraged to take up piping at a young age by her parents, who hoped that the instrument would strengthen her lungs against tuberculosis.

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

She was also a regular sight on the platform of Waverley Station, playing for the convicted women's rights campaigners being taken to Holloway Prison, as well as outside Calton Jail in support of the imprisoned Suffragettes.

Ellen Elizabeth King (1909 – 1994)

Olympic swimmer.

Ellen King was an outstanding swimmer who won 6 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 record for both the 220 yards breaststroke and the 150 yards backstroke.

After turning professional in 1934 she coached the Scottish national team for several years.

Mary King (died 1644)

TRMKC Mary King


Today, Mary King is most commonly known for the 17th century street named after her on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile.

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

Discover more about Mary King and Edinburgh’s hidden street at The Real Mary King’s Close >

Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982)

Arctic traveller and botanist.

Born at Carlowrie Castle near Kirkliston, Isobel Wylie Hutchison quickly  developed a love of travel and adventure.

In 1925 she visited Iceland and 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 her findings 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 – capturing some of the earliest documentary footage.