Guest Post: Pioneering Women’s Education in Scotland

Educational access is still a matter that unfairly affects girls all over the world from living safely and prosperously. An education is not only empowering for women but also the best way to alleviate them from poverty. The Pioneers of Women’s Education have campaigned for girls to have equal access to education and the fight continues as more than two-thirds of the illiterate adult population are women. Here Plan International blog for Engender about Scotland’s educational pioneers.

Education for girls and women is an issue still prevalent for many across the developing world. Despite progress in many countries, there are still around 31 Million girls out of school. Female education is seen as not only a way of empowering girls and women, but also as way of alleviating poverty. In the UK we have been lucky enough to have some brave female role models, and pioneers who have led the way, shattering the glass ceiling in the education sector since the 19th century and many of these inspirational women have been Scottish…

The Infamous Edinburgh Seven

Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell were a group of pioneering students in Scotland that became the first women ever admitted onto a University Degree Programme in the UK in 1869.

However, that wasn’t the end of the struggle. Their campaign for women to be allowed to study medicine led to the Surgeons’ Hall Riot in 1870 in which an organised mob of male students attempted to block their entrance into an anatomy class, even throwing rubbish at the young women. Their determination to study medicine put women’s educational rights on the political agenda and meant that 8 years after their enrolment, in 1877, legislation passed allowing women to study at University in the UK and Ireland.

Astrologist Somerville

Mary Somerville, science writer and polymath is another Scottish name synonymous with women’s education. Mary’s education was a difficult one, at the age of ten, she spent a year at an elite boarding school, Musselburgh. Upon returning home Mary had learnt some basic arithmetic as well as how to read and write. Her remaining education was scarce, unofficially dropping in on her brother’s mathematics tutorials, as well as picking up elementary geography and astronomy.

It was only later in life and during her second marriage she was able to truly pursue her intellectual passions, much to her family’s continued disapproval. Nonetheless, Mary went on to become the joint first woman to be nominated to join the Royal Astronomical Society as well as several others, and played a part in the discovery of Neptune. Her name was later given to Somerville College, Oxford, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford.

Inglis the Suffragist

Elsie Inglis was a Scottish Doctor and Suffragist, who worked to create the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit. Elsie studied to become a Doctor at Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women (founded by none other than Sophia Jex-Blake) and gained her qualifications from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

When World War I broke out, Elsie suggested that teams of female nurses and doctors be sent to the Western Front, she was met with the response ‘My good lady, go home and sit still.’ Elsie was undeterred however, and went on to raise thousands in order to set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit. Her unit provided female medical staff in France, Corsica, Russia, Romania and Serbia, where Elise worked alongside her unit in reducing the epidemic of typhus.

Women’s education rights have been a hard fought battle for many years, and we have been lucky enough to have had some inspirational women in this country lead the way. Although women now outrank men in numbers attending various Universities in the UK, many girls across the world still have no access to a basic education, meaning lower earning potential and lifetime expectancy.

However, there have been pioneers making progress in developing countries for years, and there are still notable figures such as Malala Yousafzai campaigning for female education rights across the globe right now. Plan UK’s recent infographic is part of the ‘because I am a girl’ campaign and shows the progress made in recent years in fighting for women’s education and empowerment.


Plan International's wonderful infographic is too big to include within this post, but you can view it here.

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