Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Pioneering women’s education

‘But the great fact is granted, the thin end of the wedge in, and, though nothing is secure till after the Senatus on Saturday, yet it is an enormous triumph!’ This is from the diary of Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake, born 180 years ago today, who led the campaign to secure women access to university education. She wrote this entry on the day Edinburgh University academics voted to allow her to study medicine. Though that decision would be overturned initially, she rallied others to her cause, and a group of women were then admitted. She herself became the first practising female doctor in Scotland; and she was involved in founding two medical schools for women.

Jex-Blake was born on 21 January 1840 into a wealthy, religious family in Hastings, southeast England. She had two older siblings, and was home schooled until the age of eight, after which she attended a series of private schools. In 1858, she enrolled at Queen’s College, London, despite her parents’ objections. While still a student, she worked as a mathematics tutor, though her father refused to allow her to accept payment for this. She became firm friends with Octavia Hill (who would later become a celebrated social reformer), though Hill broke off the relationship. In the early 1860s, Jex-Blake spent some time travelling in the United States, learning about women’s education and working as an assistant at a hospital in Boston. In 1867, she applied to study medicine at the University of Harvard, but was rejected on the grounds that she was a woman. Later that same year her father died and she returned to England.

In 1869, Jex-Blake published an essay - Medicine as a profession for women - arguing the case for equal access for women to medical education. She also applied to the medical faculty of Edinburgh University. Although she won acceptance by the academic board, the university’s court rejected her application because the university should not make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’. Jex-Blake responded by advertising for other applicants, who then formed a group - which became known as the Edinburgh Seven - to apply for admission together. They were the first formally admitted undergraduate female students at any British university. However, there was a backlash. The following year, 200 angry men physically prevented the women from sitting an exam. The resultant publicity provoked widespread debate on women’s education, but the University of Edinburgh caved in, refusing to allow the seven women to graduate. A court case followed which, in 1873, the university won.

In 1874, Jex-Blake helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1877 Jex-Blake was awarded her M.D. by the University of Berne, and later the same year she qualified as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland, which allowed her to become only the third woman to register as a doctor with the General Medical Council. She returned to Edinburgh, where she set up a medical practice in 1878. In the mid-1880s, she joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to establish the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, Margaret Todd being one of the early students. Jex-Blake’s management style, though, led to a damaging court case in 1889. By 1892, when the University of Edinburgh finally opened its doors fully to female students, the new school was effectively redundant. She retired from her practice in 1899, and, with Margaret Todd, moved back to Sussex, to Rotherfield. She died in 1912. For further information see Wikipedia, Undiscovered Scotland, Spartacus Educational, or the BBC.

Todd, like Jex-Blake, became a doctor, but she also published, under a pseudonym, several novels. After the death of Jex-Blake, she compiled her biography - The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake - published under her own name (Macmillan, 1918). The biography is heavily underpinned by 
Jex-Blake’s diaries, and Todd uses many verbatim extracts from those diaries. The book is freely available online at Internet Archive or Project GutenbergAccording to Shirley Roberts who has written a much more recent biography - Sophia Jex-Blake: A Woman Pioneer in Nineteenth Century Medical Reform (Routledge2005) - Todd destroyed all of Jex-Blake’s diaries as well as her own papers, before committing suicide (only months after publication of the biography). Roberts believes she did so in order to act on Jex-Blake’s instructions as found in a paragraph of her will (in which she calls for all her books and papers to be ‘burnt without examination’ if Todd should pre-decease her). Roberts’ biography can be previewed at Googlebooks.

Here are several extracts from Jex-Blake’s diaries, as quoted by Todd, several from her childhood and one from the day that the academic board of Edinburgh University first approved her application to study medicine.

29 July 1849
‘Sunday. Went to Keswick church in the morning and the text was James 4. 8. Brother went to church at Thornthwaite. Papa, Brother and Carry walked off to the Vale of St. John’s, but there was no sermon - only prayers. Went to Keswick church in the afternoon and the clergyman took his text from Ps. 119, 96.’

5 August 1849
‘Mama was very ill and I stopped at home both in the morning and afternoon with her. Papa, Brother and Carry went to Brougham-hall to church but there was no service. They went again in the afternoon to Brougham-hall - no sermon. I went in the evening to Penrith church and the text was Luke 16. 8.’

26 February 1854
‘Oh, keep Thou my foot when I go up into Thy house of prayer. O how difficult it is to fix the mind for even that short time! Miss X. will treat me unlike any other human being, but that is no reason for transgressing the commandment of my God. She says she does not like to hear me name the name of Christ for I do not depart from iniquity, she thinks I had better not hold conversations on sacred subjects.

A complaint having been made of rudeness from one of the girls, Miss X. said it was just like one of Sophy’s tricks, heaven knows with what ground. All these things have aggravated me, and I fear I have sadly given way to temper and pride, not remembering Him who bare the contradiction of sinners against Himself though He never offended in word or deed. If sometimes unjustly spoken to, how often have I escaped my desert and how few are the faults the strictest find compared with an all-seeing God. Oh, for the charity that beareth all things ...’

27 February 1854
‘I must expect trials this day, humiliating to my pride and trying to my temper...

‘Nothing special, though I gave way sadly at different times and again sinned in sending a letter to Mama.’

28 February 1854
‘Again, more and more against light, got sweets. Miss X. in her prayer speaks at poor Agnes who is just come. She prays that all may be kind to her, remembering the Fatherless and Widow are His special care, etc. How could she harrow up poor Agnes’ feelings so! The poor child was weeping under the infliction... And in the prayer she announced her intention of expelling anyone who would make the others unhappy. O I could have knocked her down, and after prayers she really spoke kindly to me about beginning March afresh and any other time I could almost have promised to try. As it was I could not kiss her even. Oh how much I think of that which might and probably did proceed from a pure motive, and do not consider my unkindness often which I know does not do so.’

1 March 1854
‘Whole holiday. Gave way to passion to A. and B. tho’ perhaps they were provoking I should better have striven to retain my temper. Alas from my feelings since it seems as if it were the letting in of water. O preserve me from being so awfully passionate as I was. Overbearing and ordering in the afternoon. Oh for the Charity which ‘is kind’ which ‘is not puffed up’ ‘seeketh not her own’ and above all which ‘is not easily provoked’.’

24 May 1855
’My answer was to come about Wales. When I got my letter I prayed God to help me to bear it, for I was nearly sure it would be a refusal, and I was quite prepared for it and determined to keep my promise not to worry about it. I put my letter in my pocket and ran away from them all. Then I burst it open and read, ‘Daddy and I have such a strong wish you should see Wales, and it is truly painful to deny you such a pleasure.’ There, thought I, but I had expected it and didn’t feel so dreadfully disappointed. Then I read on and oh, I found it was not so, that I should go. Oh, I got so excited and half began to cry. Then came Mummy’s caution not to be excited, but it was impossible. Dropped down there and thanked God. Oh, then I trust He has granted my prayer. Glory to God in the highest. Oh, I was so thankful.’

30 May 1855
‘Very difficult geometry problem. I doubt if I can do it. Mortimer was home, and told us some very good stories of ___ the nurse of his ward. Mrs. H. said in the evening she would like to be nurse there (!) She said how should I get on who so hate injustice, and I said I thought such open acknowledged injustice was not the hardest to bear. This brought down an awful storm of wonder, reasoning, etc., till at length I got off to bed so tired.’

5 June 1855
‘Throat very fairly bad, and very ‘cheval’ as M. would say. Apropos it’s her birthday....

Just before prayers I was in the cupboard and someone shut the door nearly on me. I threw it open again and half upset the great slate. We had been rather uproarious all afternoon as M’s sisters had been here and said holidays did begin on 18th. When I came out of the cupboard I managed to tread on M’s toes, and Mlle packed me off to bed. I said ‘All right,’ shook hands with her, kissed S. and went off. Mlle wasn’t very angry nor I very sorry and so we were all very comfable. Seized on K. for a kiss as she came up and she seemed forbidden to speak to me. However we had a nice hug and she wasn’t very horrified.’

7 January 1858
‘I must begin to write again if I don’t mean to lose the knack ... and so ought to go on with Hertford House or write something... I want partly to write for the money, now why, I wonder? Honestly, why? I have plenty of everything. In a handsome if not luxurious home, 6 servants all much at my orders, lots of rides, a most loving Mother, tender father, almost every wish gratified, £30 a year clear, and lots of presents, almost at will, why I should write for money unless I am avaricious or spendthrift I don’t exactly know. Partly for the pride of earning it, of knowing myself as well able to earn my bread as my inferiors. Surely, though, I ought least of all in my list of comforts - blessing, should I say? to omit my most happy, most snug nutshell of a room, with its handsome furniture, cosy fire, and thoroughly comfortable arrangements. How truly loving my most precious pearl of a Mother has been to me in this especially...

I have conceived a rather wild idea of writing to Miss M. for counsel and sympathy... But how get a letter to her? And, if I did, would she think it a bore? I think not. Send the letter to her publishers? Sure not to be opened? Then what to say if I do write? What do I want? Don’t exactly know.

Well, leave it.

Now for the more important at least more solemn part of todays journal. And I must make this some use. Just heard a sermon from Mr. Vaughan on ‘Truth,’ Gehazi being the scape-goat of warning. He spoke strongly of allowing ourselves to say more on religious subjects than we feel, calling it a dangerous deception and leading to worse. But does that include speaking a word - earnest and sincere at least - about the souls of others, tho’ our own may not be safe? Often at school I have felt driven to speak very solemnly to girls about their souls when I feel I am not worthy to say a word, for mine is perhaps as lost as theirs, and often and often have risen in my throat, ‘Lest when I have preached to others I myself become a castaway.’ Yet if I am, oh, fearful word, I can hardly write it, if lost (oh, God, save me!) can it, would it not console, if consolation were possible, to know I had warned others from the pit into which I fell. And I hope I may have done some little good... And how happy I have felt - and better in myself too, if I have even for a moment led some to think of Jesus else forgotten...

Dearest Mrs. Teed is dead. ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.’ ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!’...’

18 June 1866
‘How thoughts and plans and possibilities rush upon me! The opening of the bar to women here,Mr. Sewall’s wish for a female pupil. ‘Ah,’ as I said to L.E.S. last night, ‘if I had been an American, I believe I should not have doubted to be a lawyer.’ She thinks one should be, if one has the powers and will.

Yes, but is the ‘dedication’ and vocation of years nothing? Have I believed rightly or wrongly that God meant me to do something for teaching, and that in England, to the almost certain exclusion of all other life-work? Rightly, I think.

Then, again, the ministry. What seems to draw me so irresistibly that way? Is it pride or wish of note, or is it vocation? Is it partly Dr. Arnold’s belief that Headmaster ought also to be chaplain?...

One seems at crossways, ‘the tide’ perhaps. Well, look,and surely the kindly Light will lead.’

11 April 1868
‘Within three weeks of leaving for home,what balance sheet? Nearly three years in America.

In that time complete health regained, probably better than ever before, real strength and power of study. A profession opening calmly and clearly before me, its sciences already ‘as trees walking,’ becoming clearer daily. The edge of pain all gone. But with it vivid faith and life in many directions - belief in all invisible and much reaching after the heroic. A sort of passive ‘quo fata vocant,’ a sort of ceasing to demand the very good or very true, perhaps, a sort of coldbloodedness that is not peace, a nil admirari that only ‘will do for it.’ My vocation given up or laid aside, and I quietly learning knowledge chiefly because it is power, hardly yet shaping out any end; but what does come, selfish enough. Professor of Anatomy? Surgeon? Doctor-Teacher?

Sometimes a sharp pain rushes across, ‘Ah, if Mother shouldn’t live to see me succeed!’ She does seem woven in with the heartstrings, my old darling who cannot forget.

All this health and new life - more than ever hoped for - comes mediately from L.E.S.’

23 March 1869
’10.30 a.m. Now, having done all that lies in one woman’s power - except, perhaps, an article in the Daily Review, having left a book, as a reminder, on Bennett, hunted up Sir J. Y. S. and crammed him [with] Mlle Unpronounceable at St. Petersburg, I have to do what is hardest of all, wait.

Four distinct votes in my favour, I believe, if all go and all keep faith with me. Allman ... Bennett, Balfour, Simpson. Against me distinctly, Christison, Laycock, and probably Henderson. Doubtful, Turner, Spence, and, perhaps, Syme. Besides Maclagan (ill), and Playfair (probably absent).

To lunch with Simpson at 2 p.m., and hear results.

1.45 p.m. Waiting for the verdict? How will it be? Somehow the probability seems rather for me this time, but there, the Fates are so habitually adverse! I can’t help hoping and yet I don’t expect success. I hope they won’t ‘give an uncertain sound’ and put it off indefinitely!

8 p.m. Gloria tibi Domine!... At 2 p.m. went to Sir J. Y. S., found him out, but met him in the street. ‘Yes, ye’re to be let in to the classes if the Senatus allow ye,’ of course with all provisos as to ‘tentative,’ etc. But the great fact is granted, the thin end of the wedge in, and, though nothing is secure till after the Senatus on Saturday, yet it is an enormous triumph!

Three more days’ of calling and entreating and arguing, then ‘after all these voices ... peace.’

After all, my aspiration to L. E. S. was not so ill-founded, ‘If I can be the first woman to open a British University’ then surely I, like Charlotte BrontĂ« ‘shall have served, my heart and I’ even if I die straightway.

For May, June and July, the Botany, Natural History, and Histology, with preparation for the Matriculation exam. Oh, dear, I do feel so exultant.... In one sense I do see all the life-preamble to have been needed. The experience in the United States gave me much more chance of success now, the life there gave me health really to use the chance when it comes.

I hardly fear the future at all; not the students, nor the work. I am sorry not to be with Mother, but on the whole this must be best, I think. Four years of College! All alone? Surely not literally all the time - spiritually, who knows?

What a pity, as I said to U.D. that they will use up gold for toasting-forks! Well, I am sure the hind-wheels may run by faith for a long time now. Perhaps the tangle is beginning to unravel after all these years, and I shall have to cry, ‘Oh, why didn’t I bear on better then!’ I suppose that is always the feeling when the cloud begins to lift. But till it lifts,

‘Still it is hard. No darkness will be light
Though we should call it light from night till morn.’

And surely the Father pitieth His children.’

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