Celebrating Edinburgh’s women

The gender divide is never far away but on International Women’s day, last Thursday, it was just a little more obvious, writes CLAIRE MILLER.

By co-incidence last Thursday, I was attending a conference with more than one “manel” – a men-only panel of speakers, and later in the day attending a meeting and being repeatedly talked over and interrupted by a man who might have found my advice useful if he had paused to hear it.

I was listening to a “manel” because men still outnumber women in the top jobs and expert roles which leads to them being called on for speaking gigs. There are a range of factors at play here, for example society’s expectations of mothers, discrimination in the workplace, and widespread lack of opportunities for flexible working, to name just a few.

But one real bugbear is the lack of recognition of women who have achieved amazing things here in Edinburgh. It’s often quoted, and it’s true, that Edinburgh has more statues of animals than of named and identifiable women. However, we have a rich and inspiring history of women in this city who should and could be more celebrated.

I’m really pleased to be working with local residents on a plaque to mark the centenary of the birth of Muriel Spark, who wrote “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and many other novels. Muriel Spark is quite rightly receiving a great deal of attention in Edinburgh this year. I was delighted to visit the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland which offers fabulous insight into her life and work.

Similarly, Edinburgh has also celebrated and embraced the history of Elsie Inglis, who is now more widely known and recognised for her work as a pioneering doctor. Elsie Inglis has captured the public imagination and the centenary of her death was commemorated last year with a range of different events and educational opportunities.

But would readers recognise these names: Elizabeth Pease Nichol, Priscilla Bright McLaren, Jane Smeal and Eliza Wigham? They were four Edinburgh Quaker women who campaigned for the end of the slave trade, and then when it was abolished in Britain in 1807, they continued to campaign for the emancipation of slaves. As Quakers considered women to be the spiritual equals of men, it was possible for these women to campaign on social issues such as this and votes for women, and they were instrumental in changing our society. There is no monument in Edinburgh to Elizabeth Pease Nichol, Priscilla Bright McLaren, Jane Smeal and Eliza Wigham.

And what about Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell? Ring any bells? They are the Edinburgh Seven, who were the first group of matriculated female students in a UK university, who studied medicine at Edinburgh in 1869. While they were prevented from graduating, they did break down barriers for women in education and were key to the legislation which came along in 1876 allowing women to study medicine.

Back to the conference with the “manel”. I took comfort from spotting a replica of the “Fearless Girl” statue on one of the exhibitor stands. The original of this statue was installed on Wall Street, where she stands with hands on hips facing down the charging bull. I think Edinburgh could use a few more of our own fearless girls to be carved and installed.

I certainly don’t think that monuments, statues and plaques alone will change the world, but I do think that by recognising the achievements of Edinburgh’s women we can inspire our kids for the future.

This blog first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News