These Feminist Pioneers Are Finally Getting Their Degrees

Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The UK's first female medical students are to receive their degrees on Saturday – 150 years after they started studying for them.
The so-called "Edinburgh Seven" – Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Mathilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell – became the first group of female students enrolled at any UK university when they began their medical degrees at the University of Edinburgh in 1869.
However, they soon faced hostility when it became apparent that they were able to compete on equal terms with male students on their course. A sustained period of abuse against the women culminated in the so-called "Surgeons' Hall Riot" of November 1870, during which they had mud, rubbish and insults thrown at them by protesters.
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Their pioneering efforts are now commemorated with a plaque at the university.
Their determination to complete their degrees drew national attention to the ongoing campaign to give women the right to a university education. They gained support from some male students and tutors at the university, but the controversy surrounding the Edinburgh Seven raged on and a court ruled in 1873 that they should never have been allowed to begin their studies. Their degrees were sadly withdrawn by the university.
Five of the seven – Bovell, Chaplin, Jex-Blake, Marshall and Pechey – later achieved degrees from more progressive European universities which already allowed women to graduate. Jex-Blake became the first practising female doctor in Scotland and was involved in founding the UK's first two medical schools for women, in London and Edinburgh.
Third-year medical student Simran Paya, who will collect an honorary degree on Jex-Blake's behalf on Saturday, told the Press and Journal: "We are honoured to accept these degrees on behalf of our predecessors, who are an inspiration to us all."
The University's principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Mathieson, added: :We are delighted to confer the degrees rightfully owed to this incredible group of women. The segregation and discrimination that the Edinburgh Seven faced might belong to history, 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."
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