Paris Gourtsoyannis: Let's honour Scotland's greatest daughters

We should back efforts to honour the achievements of remarkable women like Sophia Jex-Blake, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Tuesday, 11th April 2017, 11:39 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 7:05 pm
Sophia Jex-Blake is a strong candidate to be celebrated with the erection of a statue in Edinburgh.
Sophia Jex-Blake is a strong candidate to be celebrated with the erection of a statue in Edinburgh.

Every day thousands of visitors arrive in Edinburgh to take a look at 1,000 years of history. Edinburgh has a good look back. At regular intervals in its medieval heart and Enlightenment New Town, and scattered throughout its parks and promenades beyond, Scotland’s great and good - and not so good - gaze down on grateful descendents and assorted guests.

Edinburgh’s impressive collection of statuary reflects its place as one of Britain’s foremost centres of culture and learning. Its citizens might not notice, but those from outside do - usually. David Hume, Walter Scott, Adam Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle - all are deserving of the camera clicks and selfies of tourists, even when the photographers have little idea why.

I once overheard a group of Americans on the Mound taking in the skyline and getting their bearings. “Where’s the hotel?” one asked. “I think it’s near that old burned-down church,” another replied, pointing at the Scott Monument.

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Almost all of the six dozen or so statues and monuments in Edinburgh mark the achievements of men. If monuments reflect how a nation sees its history, then Scotland has chosen to honour its most famous sons and forget its daughters.

In fact, Auld Reekie does a better job remembering its pets than it does its women: there are more statues dedicated to animals than human females. No-one would want to deny tourists the chance to meet Greyfriars Bobby, and Wojtek the vodka-drinking, chain smoking, shell-toting bear mascot of Polish soldiers from the Second World War also deserves his monument. I’m not so sure about Bum the Dog, a loyal San Diego hound given a statue to mark the city’s twinning with Edinburgh.

In comparison, the only women memorialised on the streets of the capital are Queen Victoria and Helen Crummy, the founder of the Craigmillar Festival Society. There is one other, but she is nameless: the ‘Woman and Child’ commemorating the fight against apartheid on Festival Square, a civic space so joyless and uninviting it should be stripped of its name under the Trade Descriptions Act.

There is also a memorial to Jenny Geddes, who probably had more impact on British history than any Edinburgh woman. However, it only depicts the stool she flung.

Now the Edinburgh Evening News, this publication’s sister paper, has launched a campaign calling for a statue to be erected to Edinburgh’s greatest woman.

It should get support from citizens and civic leaders across Edinburgh and Scotland. If anything, the goal is too modest: there are dozens of Edinburgh women whose achievements match, and in some cases surpass those of the men already set in stone. Marie Stopes, Muriel Spark and Mary Erskine have already been suggested, and the most obvious contender is Elsie Inglis, who has been on banknotes for almost a decade. But the most deserving must be the women who made Inglis’ work possible: Sophia Jex-Blake and the rest of the Edinburgh Seven - Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell.

In 1869, they became the first women admitted to a university degree programme anywhere in the UK after Jex-Blake petitioned the University of Edinburgh to allow her to study medicine. At the time, women in medicine were midwives or nurses.

It was a social moonshot, and the hostility the Edinburgh Seven faced was vicious.

They were threatened, stalked and abused, and when they attempted to sit an anatomy exam at Surgeon’s Hall in 1870, they were met by a mob who pelted them with rubbish and mud.

Remarkably, university authorities denied them the right to graduate, but the pressure generated by coverage of the Surgeons’ Hall Riot meant legislation followed in 1876 making it possible for women to gain medical degrees.

The bravery of the Edinburgh Seven brings to mind the Little Rock Nine, who broke the race segregation barrier in United States education at even greater personal risk. Yet a plaque was only unveiled at Surgeons’ Hall in 2015. It bears none of the women’s names.

This isn’t the first campaign calling for a statue to be erected or taken down to right the wrongs that are centuries old. Statues are inert, and many will argue that the continuing fight for equality isn’t best served by symbols.

Just because many barriers have been broken by pioneering women and minorities doesn’t mean systemic problems that stop others from following have been eliminated.

The gender of the person who occupies 10 Downing Street will mean little to women affected by the ‘Rape Clause’, a policy that forces women who have had children after being raped to disclose their assaults to untrained strangers in order to continue receiving child tax credit for a third child.

But if monuments exist at all - and we continue to build them, as the statue of Adam Smith raised on the Royal Mile demonstrates - then they should reflect the achievements that those who around them want to honour.

That means more monuments to working class figures, as retiring Edinburgh councillor Eric Milligan and others have called for. It also means recognising the flaws of those now prominently commemorated, such as Henry Dundas, without erasing other parts of history.

The University of Edinburgh is in the process of remodelling Bristo Square, next to the Teviot Row Medical School where students attend anatomy lectures. Perhaps the university and the Royal College of Surgeons should consider whether a statue to Dr Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven could be included, with the 150th anniversary of their studies approaching. It would be fitting for future generations of doctors to walk in the shadow of those who secured their rights, and worth a few selfies, too.