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This feature documentary film (1hrs 42 mins), officially premiering online July 8, directed by Susan Kemp and produced by Shona Munro, is a rumination on how history, without us being particularly aware of it, so often closes over women’s achievements and renders them invisible.
By considering a story of 150 years ago with a story of today what is revealed is how active we have to be to make women present in our cultural, built and historical environments.
Over 150 years ago, a group of women entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, the first time this had happened anywhere in Britain. Popularly known as the Edinburgh Seven, they studied, they excelled but were prevented from graduating and becoming qualified doctors. All they had asked for was a ‘fair field and no favour’ but they were met with resistance and hostility. In 2016 all Carrie Gracie asked from the BBC was equal pay but she was met with equal resistance and hostility.
This timely documentary skilfully weaves the historical context of 1869 with events in the 21st century as it follows the fight for recognition and equality, and asks has anything changed?
As a collaborative team Susan Kemp, Jo Spiller, Shona Munro and Tom Lyne provide a wide range of experience at senior level in a range of professional fields and have come together on this project to tell an important story about a neglected area of history through documentary.
Kemp worked as a producer/director at the BBC for many years before joining the University of Edinburgh in 2010 as programme director of MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation, part-time whilst continuing to make feature documentaries. Munro was an educational psychologist, a former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and freelance producer. Tom Lyne is a musician, composer and multi-talented sound person who has created an original and gorgeous bespoke score for the film in addition to designing, editing and engineering the whole sound component.
Jo Spiller has been doing some extraordinary work in bringing to the world’s attention the women known as the Edinburgh Seven, and her work forms the basis of the film. She has being doing this in her spare time whilst working as a digital learning consultant. She has dedicated a huge amount of time trying and succeeding to get more recognition for these extraordinary women. At the time of filming, Spiller was also undertaking a ‘future archive’ project of her own by photographing portraits of senior woman in the University and beyond for the Scottish Feminist Judgement Project and using this to interrogate traditional portraiture and how women have previously been represented. This project also features in the documentary.
We began thinking about this project in 2016. We were all shocked that the story of the women popularly known as the Edinburgh Seven was not common knowledge. Jo had worked with colleagues to create more Wikipedia pages for women in the sciences and had been inspired by her early research to do more.
Our first problem was how do you tell a historical narrative when you have almost no archive? The answer was, we quickly realised, that the narrative wasn’t at all historical. There is nothing more contemporary than the representation of women and that became the basis of the film. It is not just a rumination but a conversation. One that we hope sparks more discussion. We managed one private screening before the world change under Covid 19 and the conversations as the film ended burst out of the cinema and continued into the streets and beyond. That was in March 2020 and the conversations are still live and developing.
Rather than wait for the world to go back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) we decided to launch it online. We hope that is sparks as many conversations far and wide as we have enjoyed through the process of making it.
The work Spiller has done to date on the Edinburgh Seven has sparked a growing conversation about the absence of significant women in a world where we are surrounded by the artefacts of male achievement – In Edinburgh alone of the two hundred statues around the city only two are of women (the same number that are of dogs) – and where the portraits hanging in the corridors and walls of rooms throughout the rich architectural interiors of campus, council and theatre alike are almost all of men (and this is a conceit replicated across the world in urban, rural and digital realms alike), we can see that there is a need to raise the profile of the woman in history across all disciplines, and consider the politics of the archive where the influence of historical social mores on the gatekeepers of established archives remains a problem that the contemporary world needs to address. Only when that which is reflected to us is equal can we begin to see how the subtle influence of that which is visible and that which is invisible impacts the whole of society’s unconscious bias, and a sometime (but hugely newsworthy) conscious resistance to the philosophies of equality.
The documentary presents an opportunity to highlight some of the work being done (which itself is often invisible) to address these absences and engage in these wider debates with specific examples and stories that make the complexities of these, often contested, concerns more grounded and comprehensible.
The fascinating, rich complex and, ultimately, uplifting story of the Edinburgh Seven is a brilliantly accessible and engaging story. Weaving that history with recent and shockingly similar stories gives us a fascinating contemporary lens with which to understand women across time who otherwise seem impossibly distant and removed.
BRIEF BACKGROUND TO THE FIRST WOMEN STUDENTS AT A UK UNIVERSITY
The women were led by Sophia Jex-Blake and popularly referred to at the time as “Septem Contra Ednam” or “The Edinburgh Seven”. They matriculated as medical students at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 and the four years that followed were tense and turbulent as support and opposition to women students became more passionate and vocal on both side. Available historical records are relatively thin and incomplete but these years form a significant period in both medical history and the history of women’s education.
The women were not able to graduate from the University. They were unable to access the hospital training required to complete their degree and the University would not, in the end, allow any of the women to sit the final examination. Women would not enter Universities again until the law was changed in 1878 – nine years later.
Many of the first women students eventually qualified as doctors abroad and went on to have successful medical careers. Sophia Jex-Blake became Scotland’s first woman doctor. She established the first Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children in 1878. This later became the Bruntsfield Hospital which continued to operate until 1989.
In 2019 it will be 150 years since women first became students at a British University. In 1869, the women pushed at an intractable door, one that had been firmly closed to women, for centuries. It ignited a public debate that brought both supporters and opponents to passionately fight for their position. It also divided the institution of Edinburgh University itself as it dealt with the issue, for which there was no existing precedence – that of ‘the lady students’. There was both significant support within the University to see women gain the full rights as students but there was also much resistance, from influential and powerful individuals.
THE STORY SO FAR
Sophia Jex-Blake wrote in one of her letters to her friend Lucy Sewell at the time:
“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”
In the same year, Jex-Blake’s essay Medicine as a Profession for Women appeared in a book edited by Josephine Butler: Women’s Work and Women’s Culture. In this she argued that natural instinct leads women to concern themselves with the care of the sick. However, with education of girls being restricted to domestic crafts, women generally could not qualify to compete with men as medical practitioners. However, she argued that there was no objective proof of women’s intellectual inferiority to men. She said that the matter could easily be tested by granting women ‘a fair field and no favour’ – teaching them as men were taught and subjecting them to exactly the same examinations.
From that very enlightened beginning the very grand thing which she had described in her letter, however, soon descended into something very ungrand and indeed, at times, rotten.
No doubt threatened by the high standards shown by the woman students, a growing proportion of their male counterparts began to be offensive and insolent, shutting doors in the women’s faces, crowding into seats that they usually sat in, bursting into “horse laughs and howls” whenever the women approached.
Sophia later wrote that it was “as if a conspiracy had been formed to make our position as uncomfortable as might be”. She catalogued the abuse: her doorbell was “wrenched off” and her nameplate damaged five times; a Catherine wheel was attached to her door; smoke was blown in their faces; filthy letters were sent; they were waylaid in quiet streets; obscenities were shouted at them in public.
Edith Pechey, in a letter to the Scotsman, also spoke of being followed in the streets and having “the foulest epithets”, such as “whore”, shouted at her.
Friends and supporters believed that some of the professors were deliberately inciting the students to behave in this way. The women began to take precautions, and only walking around campus as a group but none of them were prepared for the events that took place on Friday 18 November 1870.
On the afternoon [of that date], the seven were walking to Surgeons’ Hall, Nicholson Street, to take an examination when they encountered a mob of hostile students who shouted abuse and blocked their entry to the hall. They pelted the women with mud and refuse. Then a sympathetic student emerged from the hall; he opened the gate and ushered the women inside. They took their examination, and all passed. This incident, known later as ‘the riot at Surgeons’ Hall’, was given wide publicity in the national newspapers and won support for the women’s cause. It was not until 1873 that the women students gained limited access to the infirmary wards, but they were then facing another problem.
In January 1872 the university court had decided that degrees could not be granted to women medical students, even if they completed the course and passed all the examinations. Jex-Blake appealed to the Scottish court of session to have the university court’s decision overruled. In July the case was heard by the lord ordinary, Lord Gifford. He declared the university court’s decision invalid; he said that women were entitled to receive degrees, just as men were. But the university then appealed to a higher court. Early in 1873 a panel of twelve judges found that the university had never been empowered to accept women students, so the women had no legitimate claim to degrees. They were, in effect, expelled.1
Whilst reading this history remains shocking nearly 150 years after the fact, it is made even more shocking by the realisation that there is a parallel between the treatment of the Edinburgh Seven in the 1870s to the contemporary treatment of women in a digital age. From the online trolling of Caroline Criado-Perez for suggesting Jane Austen’s image appear on a bank note to the recent advice published in the Wall Street Journal article in which author John Greathouse suggested women entrepreneurs might do better to hide their gender, we can see much room for discussion.