Put her on a pedestal

Take a walk through Edinburgh or Glasgow or any sizeable Scottish town and you will find statues of great men. There’s the chance you might also come across a statue of Queen Victoria, but you’ll find few dedications to any other women. We know this because the first official survey of statues in this country has so far failed to find a single statue of a Scotswoman.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland is still collating its results, but of the 168 monuments now officially classified as statues, only 15 are of women; of those, there are seven of Queen Victoria, two of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting and one statue dedicated to Dolores Ibarruri - La Pasionaria - a heroine of the Spanish Civil War famed for her work with the International Brigade, and for being one of the founders of the Spanish Communist Party. All well and good, but despite these achievements, she actually hasn’t the slightest connection to Scotland.

That leaves five anonymous females. The Commission’s public services curator, David Easton, stresses that "there are still 20 statues not given attribution to either sex, so some may be to women". (One presumes they may also be of dogs and cats. Greyfriars Bobby must be in there somewhere and so might Towzer, the cat at Glenturret Distillery.) "The known statues of women may yet greatly increase," says Mr Easton, hopefully.

Yes, but we get the general drift.

If the fund-raising campaign for a statue of the late Queen Mother is successful, it will provide us with the first statue in Scotland of a native Scotswoman. But if you’re a pioneering, high-achieving Scotswoman, what extraordinary standards of human endeavour are required before you qualify for a statue? The Royal Commission’s survey has so far borne out the fact that for a woman to be commemorated in this country, she has to have among her qualifications the title Queen of England. Just being Queen of Scotland is not enough to put you on a public pedestal. Mary, Queen of Scots - fail. Queen Margaret (never mind the sainthood) - fail. The legendary Pictish warrior Queen Scathach of Skye who taught the Celtic hero Cu-Chulainn how to fight - not good enough either. (Surely visitors to Scotland would love a charioteering statue of Queen Scathach on Skye? Think of the Boadicea on the Thames Embankment. Marvellous for tourism. Our Pictish warrior queen could support at least one small tea shop selling postcards in Portree.)

There are many practical, feminist firsts worth celebrating. The first woman advocate in Scotland was Dame Margaret Henderson-Kidd, admitted to the Bar in July 1923. She is still the only female advocate to have served as an office-bearer (as Keeper of the Library), and a portrait honours her achievement. However, Dame Margaret’s position in the list of firsts is pre-dated by that of Madge Easton Anderson, admitted to the Role of Solicitors three years earlier in 1920. Margaret the Advocate got a portrait, two honorary degrees and the Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire. Madge the Solicitor got nothing more exciting than life-long practice in Perthshire. If a committee of lawyers ever cares to add to the large collection of statues in and around Parliament Hall, perhaps modest Madge might be considered for at least a commemorative bust?

A new statue is rare. Although we recently got Donald Dewar, First Minister, modelling this season’s spectacles, it is time for some statuary to celebrate the achievements of outstanding women. Let’s topple at least half of those dreary men in Glasgow’s George Square for a start. Think how much better it would look. Now ask yourself, who really deserves a prime spot?

How about Elsie Maud Inglis, one of the first female doctors? She qualified in 1899 having done much of her clinical training in Glasgow. It would also be fitting for the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh to have a statue of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake, an Englishwoman who dedicated her life to women’s medicine here in the capital. It was Jex-Blake who persuaded Edinburgh University to allow her and her friend, Edith Pechy, to attend medical lectures - the very first women to do so. Today, it’s hard to imagine that crowds of students actually gathered at the university to intimidate two women who had the effrontery to want to study medicine. Both Jex-Blake and Inglis founded hospitals which have long since been amalgamated with other institutions. Some well-placed, interesting modern statues might prevent their names being lost from common memory.

Another woman who merits a statue is the socialist Jennie Lee who, in 1929, at the age of only 24, was elected MP for Lanark North. Lee came from a mining family in Fife and it was only thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Trust that this bright young woman was able to go to university to study law and education at Edinburgh. In government, she was later responsible for setting up the Open University. Photographs of her as a young campaigner show a strikingly beautiful woman, passionate about her cause. Perhaps this could be the starting point for a sculptor to create a likeness of her on the Mound: Jennie Lee the student, an orator with presence, speaking about freedom and emancipation.

The socialists, however, cannot claim the honour of returning Scotland’s first female member of parliament. That was Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, a Tory and the MP for Kinross and Perthshire, who was elected in 1923. If ever there was a woman who deserved an elevated position on the High Street in Perth, it is Lady Kitty, the Duchess of Atholl. Not many people today know much about her. A call to the Scottish Conservatives for more information revealed that they were unaware they had the honour of claiming the first Scottish woman MP, had never heard of Lady Kitty and had no portrait or commemorative bust or plaque on their walls. Still, they promised to find out more and get back to me.

The Duchess’s initial interest in politics was to oppose Votes for Women. Yes, you read that correctly. The first Scottish woman MP actually fought for the wrong side. Having had a few strong verbal exchanges with prominent suffragettes, however, something remarkable happened to the Duchess of Atholl. She saw the light and joined their cause. After that, nothing could stop her. She became a committed democrat and this was one of the reasons for her very public support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. She became actively involved in the care of Republican refugees and her open criticism of the Conservative government’s toleration of Franco cost her the party whip, but in the country she was widely praised for taking a stand. She wrote a book, Searchlight on Spain, which sold a staggering 100,000 copies, but Kitty Atholl had now drifted a little too far to the left for some Tories, and it wasn’t long before she became known as the Red Duchess.

In the late 1930s, she was one of a small group of Conservatives, led by Churchill, who warned against appeasement of Hitler. Their actions were not appreciated within the party. The Red Duchess, however, decided to take a stand on this point of principle. In 1938 she resigned her seat and sought re-election as an Independent. She lost by 1,313 votes to the official Conservative Party candidate. Defeat proved a bitter disappointment for her. After the Second World War, she became chairman of the British League for European Freedom, campaigning against the Soviet control in Eastern Europe. She died in Edinburgh on October 21, 1960.

"I can tell you all about her, now," said the woman ringing me back from the Scottish Conservatives. "We’ve found her in this old book we’ve got here." Give her a statue, Scottish Tories.

My personal favourite deserving case for a statue in Edinburgh is someone who was born and brought up there, but whose influence has spread all over the world, changing the lives of men and women in the most practical and liberating way. Let’s hear it for Marie Stopes. I would like her statue to stand on Princes Street, a little higher than all the others.

Marie Stopes’s first book argued that marriage should be an equal relationship. It was rejected by the publisher Walter Blackie with the words: "The theme does not please me." Blackie objected to passages such as: "Far too often, marriage puts an end to women’s intellectual life. Marriage can never reach its full stature until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as do their partners."

Stopes eventually found a publisher, though she was forced to compromise on the title, changing it from Married Life (a common euphemism for sex) to Married Love, which sounded a little bit more spiritual and romantic. Published in 1918, the book was a sensationally fast seller and had to be reprinted six times within the year. It also gained the distinction of being banned in America - presumably because of all those obscene, ribald, raunchy bits about marriage being a partnership of equals.

Stopes followed this up with Wise Parenthood, a concise guide to contraception, and was denounced for everything from heresy to harlotry. The book inspired an unusual example of ecumenical agreement between the Church of England and the Church of Rome when they stated that it was immoral to encourage women to use contraception. Since then, the Anglicans have officially changed their minds, of course, and millions of Catholics have reached a modus humanae vivendi with their conscience. In 1921 Stopes founded the Society for Constructive Birth Control which led the way for the later family-planning clinics.

But there was more to Marie Stopes than just sex and bestsellers. She also campaigned to stop the education authorities from sacking female teachers when they married, and worked to persuade the Inland Revenue to tax husbands and wives separately. This was a reform which was eventually executed by Chancellor Nigel Lawson, father of the more famous Nigella.

Scotland has had formidable women in science, too. The Royal Edinburgh Observatory should be graced by a statue of Mary Fairfax Somerville, mathematician and astronomer, who was born in Jedburgh in 1780. Her education had concentrated on ladylike pursuits - piano and embroidery and so on - but at the age of 15 she was flicking through a fashion magazine when she noticed some algebraic formulae used as decoration. This intrigued her. Soon after, her parents were alarmed to find she had a copy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry under the bed. It wasn’t long before she began making calculations in astronomy. In 1804 she married a man who thought she was a silly little thing for studying silly old maths. When he died, she was grief-stricken but also independent, financially secure and free to buy a new telescope whenever she felt like it. She married again, to a naval man called Dr William Somerville, who supported her study despite the fact that some of his family wished that Mary would "give up her foolish manner of late and make a respectable and useful wife".

She was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, together with Caroline Hershel, the first women to be accorded the honour. She died aged 91, having just finished work on another mathematical article. Oxford’s Somerville College is named after her.

All of the women proposed for statues thus far have been educated professionals. What about someone who didn’t have any formal higher education? There are plenty of hard-working Scottish businesswomen in this category. I nominate one Elizabeth Cumming, famed in the late-19th century as the Queen of the Whisky Trade, whose Victorian business empire was founded at Cardow Distillery on Speyside.

In the days when whisky was illicitly produced, small kegs of it were carried on ponies, often at night, over Mannoch Hill and down into Forres and Elgin where there was never any shortage of customers. The distillery always made money, even when it went legal, but it was Cumming who really drove the business to unprecedented and legalised success. She dramatically expanded production and negotiated a brilliant business deal with John Walker & Co. of Kilmarnock, whereby Cardhu became the principal malt in their blends. Diageo, the present owners of the distillery, have recently mixed the 12-Year-Old Single Malt Cardhu with other whiskies from the area, selling it as a pure malt, instead of a single, to the great consternation of the whisky industry. Such a move, many believe, undermines the integrity of single malt scotch as a quality product. Elizabeth Cumming must be turning in her grave. Perhaps Diageo might put up a statue at the distillery to placate a restless spirit.

There are of course, many women whose work and faces are forgotten. Sometimes their existence is recorded by artists of their day, like the Newhaven fishwives photographed by Hill and Adams in 1848. Chief among these is the study of Elizabeth Johnstone Hall, the "beauty of the village", but to my mind the focus for a statue should come from the wonderfully titled photograph Mrs Barbara Johnstone Flucker Shucking Oysters. Mrs Johnstone Flucker is a formidable fishwife indeed. She stands robustly by her creel, knife and oyster in her hands. There is a dignity about her character and independence that would translate well into a three-dimensional work of art.

With the passage of time, it gets harder to find traces of famous women. The superbly named Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar, held Dunbar Castle against siege by the Earl of Salisbury in 1334. When the garrison was almost starved out, she succeeded in smuggling in food, and sent Salisbury a freshly baked loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. What style! "From the record of Scottish heroes, none can presume to erase her," said Sir Walter Scott. We should give her a statue at Dunbar Castle. But who, even in Dunbar, has heard of her?

In Edinburgh, there is a golden statue of the goddess Fame above the dome of the Bank of Scotland on the Mound. In the century and a half that she has stood there, poised to award that outstretched laurel crown, many women who deserve the honours have passed by uncelebrated. It seems that for the brilliant Scotswomen of the past, Fame, in the form of a statue, can only ever be allegorical. Most of the statues we see today were erected in the 19th and early-20th centuries to commemorate great men. There were plenty of great women, too, but their great work was to challenge the establishment. Rebels get their statues only when they are vindicated. They are honoured by a later, grateful, more enlightened generation. I think that’s probably supposed to be us.

• Abigail Bosanko’s second novel, A Nice Girl Like Me, will be published in June by Time Warner UK