‘A Fair Field and No Favour’

Jo Spiller

Jo Spiller heads the Educational Design and Engagement team at the University of Edinburgh. Her office is four doors away from where the Edinburgh Seven were based 150 years ago and where the battle to secure the right for women to a University education began.


What did it mean to be a ‘dangerous woman’ in the 19th century at a time when on the one hand, the most powerful seat in Britain, the throne, was occupied by a woman, but on the other hand, the status of the average woman regardless of class was practically that of a serf?

Sophia Jex-Blake and six other women who became collectively known as the Edinburgh Seven discovered how dangerous the medical establishment felt them to be when they set out in 1869 to pursue the study of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

In Victorian Britain, there were limited opportunities for women seeking employment. Working class women and children did the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs in mines and factories, and earned much less.

Amongst the more affluent in society, the only profession open to women had been that of Governess until Florence Nightingale began transforming nursing into a respectable profession. Attitudes to education were changing in late Victorian Britain which meant that women with skills, ability and character could pursue a nursing career. With women demonstrating they made good nurses, the question of why they wouldn’t equally make good doctors inevitably arose. [1]


Be Midwives, not Doctors – Professor Christieson

The Medical Act of 1858 stipulated that only those with recognised medical degrees from British Universities were eligible to register as doctors. This meant that if women wished to qualify as doctors, institutions previously closed to them would need to be opened up.

In 1869, the University of Edinburgh was the first to open its doors to women when Sophia Jex-Blake successfully petitioned the University for permission to apply.

Despite much support, both active and benign, from members of the Medical Faculty, the wider University and the general public, there was also a great deal of influential opposition to the idea of women as doctors.

Sophia Jex-Blake wrote of one member of the faculty:

[he] informed me women ‘didn’t understand their position’, that they did their own work in the world badly, that they had not sufficient strength for medical practice. [2]

Women’s motives in seeking to practise as doctors was also considered suspect and potentially dangerous.

The same member of faculty who had articulated that women didn’t understand their position stated at a meeting of the University council in 1870, that women seeking medical training could be ‘basely inclined’ and unless careful enquiries were made into their character, the institution could be harbouring ‘Magdalenes’.

The debate made the national papers, with most coming out in full support of the women students. The Times not only questioned why the same concerns expressed about women students weren’t equally expressed about male students but also commented:

 It is the strongest argument against the admission of young ladies to the Edinburgh medical classes that they would attend the lectures of Professors who are capable of talking in this strain.

The Times [3]


The Surgeon’s Hall Riot 1870

Throughout the first year of their Medical degree, the women proved themselves to be both personally and intellectually equal to the demands of the discipline. They conducted themselves diligently and professionally in their day-to-day studies and demonstrated that they could equal and often outperform their male counterparts in open examinations.

In the ‘fair field and no favour’ which Sophia Jex-Blake desired, some of the faculty staff acknowledged the women to be exemplary students. This led to growing tension with the wider student body, in part encouraged by hostile members of faculty, and the women began to be subjected to a mounting campaign of intimidation. They were regularly followed home, and had a series of obscene letters put through their letterboxes. Crowds would gather outside their Edinburgh home to rattle their windows and door and remove their nameplate, they would be pelted with peas and other objects thrown at them as they moved around campus.

The women stopped going out on campus alone and would not leave the house after dark. This hostility reached crisis point at 4pm on 18th November 1870 when the women arrived at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicolson Street, Edinburgh to sit an Anatomy exam. They found their route blocked by a baying mob of over two hundred students and locals hurling mud, rubbish and insults at them.

This was a major turning point in the campaign as many male students were horrified by the way the women were treated that afternoon and began to organise themselves into teams of bodyguards to escort them around campus.

The riot made national headlines and won the women many new supporters. The Committee for Securing a Medical Education to the Women in Edinburgh was set up with over three hundred influential members including Charles Darwin.

The campaign was hard fought throughout the following three years but ended in the courts, with the Lord Ordinary’s verdict that the University had acted ‘illegally’ in matriculating the women in the first place.


 … this is not the first time, and I suppose it will not be the last, when grave and wise men will be found defending a dying tyranny. [4] – Professor Masson

Sophia Jex-Blake, herself, did not consider the Edinburgh campaign a failure. “I believe that it was the seed sown in tears in Edinburgh that was reaped in joy elsewhere”. [5]

The women had successfully challenged the widely held assumptions regarding women’s intelligence and had shown that they were more than competent to meet the challenges of the medical profession.

In 1869, they met with an equal, opposite and determined resistance. However, the ‘chariot wheels of progress’ were in motion and the momentum would prove unstoppable.


Dr Sophia Jex-Blake has made the greatest of all contributions to the end attained. – James Stansfeld, 1877

Women would finally, formally and legally be admitted to Universities in 1877. James Stansfeld, MP for Halifax, and one who had been closely associated with the campaign, wrote:

It is one of the lessons of the history of progress that when the time for a reform has come you cannot resist it… [Opponents] are not merely dragged at the chariot wheels of progress – they help to turn them. The strongest force, whichever way it seems to work, does most to aid. [6]

Throughout the world, battles are still being fought to secure the right to free and equal education for women and girls. The ability for women to seek medical care from a woman doctor is not universal, with sometimes unnecessarily catastrophic results.

Battles to secure these rights were also fought here on our doorstep by brave, persistent and dangerous women 150 years ago. They had their integrity and virtue questioned in an era when women’s virtue was valued above all else. They were humiliated, intimidated and faced a barrage of abuse simply due to the fact they stepped into a world that was not yet ready to accept them.

I work on Buccleuch Place, the same street the Edinburgh Seven lived on during their time in Edinburgh. I think often about the fortitude and grit that they showed in enduring all they endured and still excelling in their studies.

I applaud these extraordinary and dangerous women who helped push at this obstinate and intractable door and ultimately made it possible for women in every generation that followed, including myself, to enjoy the privilege of a University education and the opportunity to pursue professional careers of their choice.


[1] Roberts, Shirley (1993). Sophia Jex-Blake. Routledge pp. 1-3

[2] Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918) pp. 236

[3] The Times, 25th April 1870

[4] Margaret Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (Macmillan, 1918) pp. 245

[5] Jex-Blake, Sophia (1886). Medical Women. MacMillan. Preface to Second Edition

[6] J. Stansfeld, ‘Medical women’ in Nineteenth Century, July 1877


One thought on “Sophia Jex-Blake

  1. Thanks for reminding us of this important historical episode. I have written a bit about this in relation to the novelist Charles Reade’s championing of Jex-Blake’s campaign in his novel ‘The Woman Hater’, which was serialised in the conservative Edinburgh monthly literary journal ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ in 1876, just as the parliamentary debates on the subject were reaching fever pitch. (see David Finkelstein, The House of Blackwood.) He drew heavily on personal discussions with Jex-Blake and fought hard to sneak reformist themes into an establishment journal in the heart of Edinburgh edited by a family that did not support women’s medical education. The literary battle mirrored political battles of the time. Most extraordinary and baseless arguments were used against these brave women who led the way to opening doors for female educational empowerment that we now take for granted 140 years later.

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