On 18 November 1870, aspiring doctor Sophia Jex-Blake and the handful of other female students arrived to sit an anatomy exam at Edinburgh University’s Surgeons’ Hall. They found a drunken mob blocking their entry and a live sheep wandering around the room. It had been placed there by male students to send the none-too-subtle message that a woman was as unnatural a presence at a medical school as a farmyard animal.
According to the so-called Whig view of history, things are getting better all the time. If you study the past, say Whiggists, you observe a slow but satisfying progression from barbarism to liberty and enlightenment. It’s a nice idea. But as anyone who’s spent time on social media knows, it doesn’t really bear close analysis – especially where women are concerned. Sure, successive waves of feminism have emancipated women to a degree that would have amazed the Victorians. But they’ve enraged many men, whose reaction to women being able to perform brain surgery and build skyscrapers has been to go full Mutton-Chop Paterfamilias.
Thanks to the barely regulated nature of Facebook and Twitter, we live in a world where women in the public eye are obliged to tolerate appalling levels of misogynistic vilification. Earlier this year, the Labour MP Jess Phillips revealed that she had had 600 rape threats in a single night. In February, the classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard posted a picture of herself crying after receiving a deluge of abuse prompted by a comment she made about Haiti. “I speak from the heart (and of course I may be wrong),” she tweeted. “But the crap I get in response just isn’t on; really it isn’t.”
I know how she feels – and think about the issue a lot – because I’ve experienced this trolling, too. One of the 200 or so on-screen interviews I did this year was with the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. I challenged him about the gender pay gap, which he believes is a fiction, and what he calls the “murderous equity doctrine” embraced by many modern women. Afterwards, his army of online followers, many hailing from the “alt-right”, went into attack mode, calling me a “cunt” and a “bitch”, threatening to execute me and circulating pornographic memes of me on Instagram, one of which my 14-year-old daughter saw.
Sometimes, I can’t help responding to the trolls in the heat of the moment. But, in 2019, I’m going to pause a moment to ask myself what Sophia would do
The scale of the onslaught was overwhelming. On every platform, a torrent of vile and demeaning messages. It was dehumanising.
So, the woman I want to channel this year is Sophia Jex-Blake – her courage and tenacity, but especially her patience, which strikes me as superhuman. I’m not a very patient person and definitely need to try harder in that department. Sometimes, I can’t help responding to the trolls in the heat of the moment. But, in 2019, I’m going to pause a moment to ask myself what Sophia would do. And here’s why.
The bullying she and her female peers endured, which has passed into feminist legend, has a distinctly contemporary tang. In her autobiography, she described how, after a meeting with the university’s management team, “a certain proportion of the students with whom we worked became markedly offensive and insolent, and took every opportunity of practising the petty annoyances that occur to thoroughly ill-bred lads – such as shutting doors in our faces, ostentatiously crowding into seats we usually occupied, bursting into horse-laughs and howls when we approached – as if a conspiracy had been formed to make our position as uncomfortable as it might be.”
The more successful the women became in their studies, the more the violence against them escalated. Mud was thrown at them and fireworks attached to the doors of their lodgings. It all culminated in the sheep incident – one that amazes me, because of the effort it must have taken to stage. Imagine how threatening those men must have found Sophia!
To add insult to injury, on 8 January 1872 Edinburgh’s University Court decided the university would not, after all, be awarding the women a degree. But it was OK – they were still free to study there, “if we would altogether give up the question of graduation, and be content with certificates of proficiency” (Sophia’s italics). The students tried to sue Edinburgh University for breach of implied contract. When this failed, they pursued the matter through parliament and, after three years of squabbling, during which Sophia founded the London School of Medicine for Women, achieved victory in the form of the Russell Gurney Enabling Act (1876), which obliged medical bodies to allow women to sit exams – except in surgery – and gave women the same rights as men to enter the profession.
Sophia Jex-Blake eventually sat her medical exams in 1877 at the Irish College of Physicians in Dublin. She set up her own practice in Edinburgh the following year and by the end of 1878 had treated 574 patients.
The sheer tenacity of Sophia and her fellow students is hugely impressive. Whenever I feel like giving up on something, I want to remember their devotion to their cause. And, however unequal Britain still feels, we all need to check our privilege. Thanks to Sophia and the other pioneers I discovered while researching my book, women in Britain have the right to a decent education, and from there the world’s your oyster. Well, sort of.
The good news is that, after Sophia’s victory, women’s progress through the medical profession was unstoppable. The bad news is that the male impulse to demean and belittle women is given freer rein on Twitter than it ever was in Edinburgh’s hallowed halls.
What would Sophia have done about that? She certainly wouldn’t have given up Twitter. So, neither will I. But I suspect she might have calmly and patiently taken the social-media companies to task for making so much of the online world a hostile environment for women. She succeeded. So can we.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News. Her first book, Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries And Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot To Mention, is out now, published by William Collins