Revealed: Sophia Jex-Blake's secret job as a journalist for The Scotsman

While working away in the archives of the National Library of Scotland, I made a discovery that deepens our understanding of Sophia Jex-Blake and her historic Edinburgh Seven campaign.

This discovery proves Jex-Blake secretly worked as a paid journalist for The Scotsman and authored many of their anonymous leading articles on her campaign. She deliberately hid this information to the very end of her life, even as she extensively quoted and praised her own Scotsman articles in her other writings and encouraged readers to believe The Scotsman’s popular editor, Alexander Russel, and his male staff had authored these pieces.

In fact, she hid her authorship of the articles so effectively that even 150 years later, they are still cited by scholars without being attributed to her.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

When I uncovered Jex-Blake’s secret, I was nearing the end of a three-month stay in Edinburgh, where I was conducting research for my PhD thesis on Jex-Blake’s contributions to The Scotsman during the so-called “Battle at Edinburgh".

An academic has discovered that Sophia Jex-Blake, who led the Edinburgh Seven campaign to allow women to study at Edinburgh University, worked in secret as a paid journalist for The Scotsman, where her anonymous leader articles encouraged support for her cause. PIC: Contributed.

I had already confirmed my hunch that Jex-Blake had more direct input into the paper’s contents than has previously been known. But it never occurred to me The Scotsman’s influential leading articles, which generated tremendous public support for the female students, might have been written by her.

Read More

Read More
Edinburgh Seven's extraordinary achievements as first women students in UK are m...

One day while searching the archives for proof Jex-Blake had authored anonymous letters to the editor, I found an original Scotsman contributors’ log identifying the names of authors who had written leading articles and book reviews between 1872-81. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up leading articles on the campaign in order to learn who at The Scotsman had written them. When I saw Jex-Blake’s name listed as the author of these pieces, I was so shocked that I nearly slid out of my chair.

This finding enabled me to re-see Jex-Blake’s story through a new lens. Perhaps most interestingly, I realised she used a strategy of anonymous self-citation to promote her articles in other texts, most notably Medical Women: A Thesis and a History (1886). Throughout Medical Women, she keeps her authorship a secret while extensively praising, quoting and referencing her anonymous publications. “Once more to quote our great champion the Scotsman,” she writes in one introduction to a quote from a leading article that we now know she authored herself.

The Old Quadrangle at Edinburgh University in the late 19th Century, around the time Sophia Jex-Blake and fellow campaigners faced a fierce backlash over their matriculation. PIC: The Wellcome Trust/Creative Commons.

Nearly all modern accounts of the campaign circulate the idea Russel supported Jex-Blake in The Scotsman by either writing or directing journalists to write leading articles in support of the campaign.

Even the 1981 BBC miniseries The Walls of Jericho centres Russel’s support of Jex-Blake through his newspaper columns. Within the scholarly community, the same thing has occurred. What we now know is that the accounts of these 20th and 21st-century filmmakers and scholars continue to be shaped and directed by Jex-Blake’s intentional strategies.

But why would Jex-Blake, an outspoken activist and known author, hide her role as a journalist from the public? The answer is complex, but it is important to note her signed publications, while impactful, were also limited by readers’ preconceived biases and prejudices about women generally – and about her specifically.

Alexander Russel, the former editor of The Scotsman, was in charge of the newspaper when Jex-Blake was paid to write a number of leader articles. It was presumed - and still widely reported to be the case - that Russel wrote the leaders in support of the Edinburgh Seven, but it has now been discovered that Jex-Blake wrote the leaders in support of her campaign to admit women to study at Edinburgh University. PIC: Creative Commons.

An unconventional woman by Victorian standards of feminine propriety, Jex-Blake was a controversial figure in her own time. Many of her contemporaries blamed her, rather than the medical men who opposed her, for the controversy in Edinburgh.

In the leading articles, Jex-Blake was freed from those judgments and able to speak as “The Scotsman” in what was then an implicitly male voice. In fact, many readers believed the leading articles had been written by Russel himself.

Speaking with the cultural authority of The Scotsman, she aimed to cultivate support for the Edinburgh campaign and to unite the paper’s diverse readership in support of female doctors. In part she did so by criticising and exposing the increasingly egregious tactics of the medical faculty while aiming to generate support for the female students.

As Jex-Blake put it in one 1872 article, the female students and their allies were “fighting the fight of darkness against light, of monopoly against free trade, of compulsory ignorance against education”. Meanwhile, the “reckless” medical men and their supporters sought to protect the medical market from what she sarcastically referred to as “the desecration of female invasion”.

Evidence suggests the primary reason Jex-Blake continued to guard this secret throughout her life and to cite The Scotsman in Medical Women more than a decade after the campaign ended was because she believed that doing so would prevent enemies from disseminating a false version of events to future generations.

She had frequently encountered such efforts and believed they would continue after her death. The Scotsman’s authority, then, would protect her campaign from misrepresentation and erasure, ensuring her efforts would have a lasting impact on the medical women’s movement and women’s chances for success in the medical field.

This discovery provides us with a rare opportunity to re-assess Jex-Blake’s strategies and impact.

The fact that her biographer and partner, Margaret Todd, burned all of Jex-Blake’s papers shortly after her death has limited historians’ understanding of her contributions and strategies. With this new information, we can paint a more complex portrait of a fascinating historical figure who strategically utilised a Victorian newspaper to help pave the way for female doctors.

- Sarah J. Ghasedi is a lecturer at the University of Washington. Her extended article on Sophia Jex-Blake’s anonymous writing is scheduled to appear in Victorian Periodicals Review.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.