PA Editorial

PA EDitorial

Trailblazers of Academia: the women who changed the landscape

Education is undoubtedly one of the key foundations of societal progress. For centuries, many individuals have devoted their lives to advancing the scope and reach of education around the world.

Among these pioneers, certain women stand out for their outstanding contributions, breaking barriers and paving the way for future generations of women.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Inspire Inclusion’, which resonates with us here at PA EDitorial. [1] So, we wanted to reflect not directly on how inclusivity still remains a continuous prerequisite for progress in academia but instead on how this field has been inspired by pioneering female trailblazers who transformed the landscape.

Numerous obstacles, discrimination, and prejudices have marked the journey and history of women in academia. However, several courageous women have defied the odds and emerged as pioneers in this field. These women, often overlooked in history, were instrumental in breaking barriers and shaping the academic backdrop that we recognise today.

The First Trailblazers

Bettisia Gozzadini: The Italian Lecturer

One of the first women to break new ground was Bettisia Gozzadini in 1237.

Gozzadini was born into a noble family in 1209 and became an Italian educator. She is recognised as being the first known female university lecturer, after studying philosophy and law at the Stadium of Bologna. Despite the societal norms of the time, Gozzadini began teaching law at her home before later accepting a chair position at the Stadium, where she taught for several years.

There are legends and myths surrounding Gozzadini, such as the possibility that, as a young woman, she dressed as a man, although it’s unclear whether this was due to social pressures or personal choice. It’s also rumoured that she had to wear a veil when she taught to maintain modesty and not distract male students.

Gozzadini was a courageous innovator who defied societal norms and opened the path for future generations of women in academia. [2]

Beatriz Galindo: A Spanish Pioneer

One of the most educated women of her time, Beatriz Galindo was born in Salamanca in 1465 (approximately). She graduated from the University of Salamanca after studying to become a nun and earned a reputation for her proficiency in Latin, with her nickname being ‘La Latina’.

Galindo later served as a tutor to the children of Queen Isabella of Castile, including Catherine of Aragon, the future first wife of Henry VIII of England. [3]

Anna Maria van Schurman: The Dutch Polyglot

German-born Anna Maria van Schurman was the first woman to attend a Dutch university, the University of Utrecht, between 1634 and 1637. She championed female education at a time when women were predominantly uneducated. Schurman was proficient in fourteen languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, and Ethiopic.

At the age of four, Schurman was already able to read. By the time she was six, she had surpassed every other child her age in creating highly intricate paper cut-outs. At ten, she learned embroidery in just three hours. [4]

Schurman was a genius who used her skills to advocate education for women.

The Struggle for Access

In these early days – and for centuries after – education was deemed an exclusive opportunity for privileged males. Women of all classes were often sidelined, and their thirst for knowledge was suppressed. Yet, against all odds, these trailblazers strived for educational equality and inclusivity, challenging societal norms and conventions.

But this journey was a long one, and in the UK, it was centuries long.

The London Nine

Women’s higher education in London traces its roots back to the late 1840s when the Unitarian benefactor Elisabeth Jesser Reid established Bedford College. During this period, the University of London primarily focused on examinations for male students, leaving women without equal educational opportunities.

In August 1868, after a series of demands that women have access to examinations and degrees, a compromise was reached. The University of London’s Senate voted to admit female students aged 17 or over to sit a new kind of assessment – the ‘General Examination for Women.’

This was the first momentous milestone in women’s higher education, and it only occurred just over 150 years ago.

The historic event marked the beginning of a new era for women’s education in Britain.

However, it was not an easy path for these pioneering women.

The Challenges Faced by the London Nine

Source: By University of London – Harte, Negley. (1986). The University of London 1836-1986. An Illustrated History. London: Athlone Press. p. 115. ISBN 0-485-11299-X., Public Domain.

On 3rd May 1869, at 1 p.m., the nine women gathered to take part in their first university examination. The week-long ordeal consisted of 11 papers covering a wide range of subjects, including Latin, algebra, English history, modern languages, and botany.

The examinations were rigorous and demanded extensive knowledge of various disciplines. The questions ranged from technical inquiries like the preparation of Ammonia solution in a state of purity to broader topics such as the meaning of a Roman provincia.

Following the conclusion of the examinations, the University’s seventeen examiners diligently gathered to assess the performance of the London Nine.

The results were significant, with six of the women being awarded ‘honours’ while the remaining three students failed the exam, although one successfully re-sat the examination the following year.

However, despite their accomplishments, female students who passed the General Examination did not receive degrees but were awarded a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’.

The uneven road to full recognition was still ahead.

The success of the London Nine in the face of such challenges was not only a personal triumph but also a pivotal moment in the history of women’s place within academia.

The admission of women to the General Examination was just the beginning of a transformative period in their education. In the following years, London University admitted women to its degree programme, and women-only colleges like Westfield and Royal Holloway were established. These institutions provided women with the opportunity to pursue academia and further expanded access to higher education.

The London Nine paved the way for future generations of women, and their sheer determination and resilience inspired many, including the legacy of the Edinburgh Seven.

The Edinburgh Seven

Founding Acorns

In 1869, the Edinburgh Seven – a group of women determined to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors – began the fight for inclusivity in academia.

Their journey was far from easy.

They faced numerous challenges and experienced discrimination and hostility from both their male peers and the wider society. The road to inclusivity was paved with obstacles, but their determination and resilience prevailed.

By Unknown author –, Public Domain

Led by Sophia Jex-Blake, who wanted to be a doctor at a time when it was unthinkable for a woman to be one, the Edinburgh Seven initially campaigned to attend the summer lectures at Edinburgh University.

The Dean of the Medical Faculty at the University of Edinburgh granted this permission.

However, not everyone was supportive, and Professor Robert Christison expressed concerns about the impact of women on professional standards.

‘The poor intellectual ability and stamina of women would lower professional standards.’ [5]

To make matters worse, the Senior Assistant Physician at the Royal Infirmary appealed to the University Court to overturn the decision, citing the difficulties and expenses of teaching women separately. This appeal led to the decision to rescind Jex-Blake’s opportunity to study medicine.

So, unfortunately, the initial victory for the Edinburgh Seven was short-lived.

A Campaign of Resilience

However, the Edinburgh Seven’s story gained significant attention thanks to the efforts of David Masson (Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature) and David Russel (editor of The Scotsman newspaper).

Masson represented Jex-Blake and worked tirelessly to convince the University Court that teaching women could be made more viable if there were more women to teach.

The power of the press also gained momentum, and despite facing opposition and scepticism, Jex-Blake’s perseverance paid off, and she was granted the opportunity to pursue her studies. Supported by influential figures such as Sir James Young Simpson and Professor James Syme, Jex-Blake managed to secure the right for women to study obstetrics and gynaecology.

David Russel’s publication of the fight and the controversy in The Scotsman ultimately encouraged more women to apply for medical education, leading to a significant increase in the number of women matriculating in medicine.

The Surgeons’ Hall Riot

On 18 November 1870, the women were to attend an anatomy exam at Surgeons’ Hall but as they approached the building, they were met with a large crowd of students and several hundred onlookers.

Despite the verbal abuse and refuse that was thrown at them, the Edinburgh Seven were able to gain access to the hall. It’s believed that some helpful janitorial staff and sympathetic male students assisted the women in their quest.

A few students were removed from the examination room due to disruptive behaviour. But things got even worse when a live sheep named ‘Poor Mailie’ – the University’s pet – was let in through the back door.

Once the examination was over, a group of Irish students, known as the ‘Irish Brigade,’ safely escorted the women out of the college, but by this time, they were covered in mud.

The Edinburgh Seven: A Legacy of Resilience

The Edinburgh Seven were the first group of female students to be matriculated as undergraduates at any British university.

Despite facing considerable resistance, their campaign eventually garnered national attention, ultimately leading to the passage of legislation in 1876 that ensured women could study at university. [6]

The Edinburgh Seven’s fight for women’s education had a lasting impact on society and the field of medicine. Their efforts opened doors for future generations of women and challenged the long-standing notion that women were intellectually inferior to men.

Women’s Education: A Path to Empowerment

The London Nine and the Edinburgh Seven shattered stereotypes and challenged societal expectations. Their academic success and determination to pursue careers in medicine challenged the prevailing belief that women were solely meant for domestic roles. Their achievements served as a testament to the intellectual capacity and potential of women.

Inspiring Inclusion for Future Generations: A Lasting Legacy

The courage and resilience of these pioneering women have inspired future generations of women. Their story serves as a reminder that progress is possible, even in the face of adversity. Their legacy lives on in the countless women who have followed in their footsteps, pursuing careers in medicine and other fields traditionally dominated by men.

Their journeys were marked by determination, resilience, and an unwavering belief in the power of education. These pioneering women challenged societal norms, fought for their right to education, and paved the way for the future. Their legacy lives on in the progress towards gender equality and inclusion in academia and medicine.

As we celebrate their achievements, it’s important to remember the significance of equal opportunities for all and to continue to strive for a better world.

Their journeys serve as a powerful reminder that education is fundamental to unlocking a world of opportunities for women globally.

The Present Scenario

Women have made considerable progress in education, both as students and educators. From early childhood education to higher education and beyond, women are increasingly taking on leadership roles, pushing boundaries, and contributing to the advancement of knowledge.

Today, women comprise more than half of the students in undergraduate and graduate programs worldwide, although they continue to face challenges, particularly in fields conventionally dominated by men, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

The presence of women in academic leadership roles is steadily increasing, with more women serving as school principals, university deans, and education policymakers, contributing to the development and implementation of educational strategies and policies.

The Future of Women in Academia

While significant progress has been made, gender equality in academia still needs to be achieved. Persistent disparities remain in certain regions and fields, and women continue to face unique challenges in accessing quality education and advancing in their academic careers.

Bridging the Gender Gap in STEM Academia

One of the most pressing issues is the gender gap in STEM academia. Despite the increasing number of women in higher education, they remain underrepresented in STEM fields. Efforts are needed to encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM education and careers and to create an inclusive and supportive environment for them to thrive.

Ensuring Access to Academia for All Women and Girls

Ensuring access to quality education for all women and girls, particularly those in marginalised and disadvantaged communities, is a key priority. Education is a fundamental human right, and all women and girls should have the opportunity to learn, grow, and fulfil their potential.

Final Thought

The women who have shaped the course of academia have left an indelible mark on history. Their courage, determination, and vision have paved the way for future generations of women to learn, grow, and contribute to society.

Women’s education has come a long way in the fight for equality and inclusivity. Throughout history, there have been numerous brave women who have pushed boundaries and challenged societal norms to pave the way for future generations.

As we reflect on the journeys of our female trailblazers, it is evident that their determination and courage opened doors for countless women pursuing higher education.

As we move forward, honouring their legacy and advocating for equal opportunities in academia is crucial. The obstacles and the resilience these women demonstrated serve as a reminder that education can be a transformative force, breaking down barriers and empowering individuals to shape a brighter future.

In 2019, the Edinburgh Seven were awarded posthumous degrees 150 years after they started their studies. [7]

Spillerjzy, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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[1] International Women’s Day:

[2] Elizabeth Cropper, Women Counted in Early Modern Bologna, Oxford Art Journal, Volume 45, Issue 2, August 2022, Pages 329–334,

[3] Almudena de Arteaga (2007). Beatriz Galindo, the Latina: Teacher of Queens. Madrid: Algaba, p. 194

[4] Anna Maria van Schurman, Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated and Other Writing from Her Intellectual Circle, ed and trans by Joyce Irwin, Chicago 1998

[5] Edinburgh University:,women%20would%20lower%20professional%20standards.

[6] Medical Act 1876: [7] The Guardian: Edinburgh gives female medical students their degrees – 150 years late

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