International Women’s Day 2024-Bessie Watson

My honour to open the Bessie Watson Lecture room on International Women’s day.  Beautiful ribbons in green, white, purple and red!  Not yet 100 years. Thank you to Lauren Johnston-Smith Lesley Greer, Katie Grieve Karen Howie Ellen Groen, Susanne Knowles for organising and Gillian Kidd for the fabulous artwork. These women have got the skills we value.

This is now becoming a theme for us to name rooms on-campus after inspirational women. There are so many rooms, buildings and roads named after men in this university it is great to be able to add some women’s names in there too.

We are featuring Bessie as the woman were are naming for today, but we have previously named Brenda Moon, Irene Young, Mary Somerville, Grace Hopper, Eleanor Ormerod, Marjorie Rackstraw, Annie Hutton Numbers, Xia Peisu and Charlotte Murchison

Bessie was born nearby, in the Vennel, which is now a very popular Instagram-able spot with great views up to the castle. She is famous for being a bag-pipe playing suffragette, but she’s also an alumna of Edinburgh. She studied French here and went on to a career as a music teacher and a modern languages teacher at Broughton High school, She married and lived  in Trinity and everyday for the rest of her life she played bagpipes at 11 am, which her neighbours obviously appreciated.  She died at 92.

But before that, when she was wee, played the bagpipes from a very young age. Her parents got her playing in the hope that it would strengthen her lungs against tuberculosis- an early example of proscribe culture.

Bessie and her mother were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union and that’s how she got her most famous gigs. She was invited to play the pipes in the famous procession down Princes Street, in 1909 she was 9. She also played lead the Scottish contingent at the Great Suffragette pageant in London in 1911. The procession was 5 miles long.

Those of you who study the history of the suffrage marches will know that they were difficult to organise because people had different ideas about who should go first and in what order, and which groups were more established, and in America, whether white and black women would march together or separately

In Edinburgh they decided to avoid all that and march in alphabetical order. Christabel Pankhurst was the star speaker at the march and afterwards she gave Bessie a brooch to commemorate the occasion- it was a brooch depicting queen Boudica,

Bessie continued to be actively involved in suffrage, wearing purple, green and white hair ribbons to school. And she piped outside Calton Gaol to raise the spirits of the suffragettes imprisoned there, who were being force-fed. The women were on hunger strike, and force-feeding of women at Calton jail started in February 1914, so around 110 years ago. Most of the force-feeding actually went on in Dundee and in London and She played the pipes on the platform of Waverley station as trains carrying convicted suffragettes departed to Holloway Prison in London.

It’s worth remembering that some of the convictions were for destroying property, damaging paintings of the King, blowing things up, it is hard to know how the campaign would have progressed were it not for the start of the First World War. One of the places they attempted to blow up was the royal observatory up near our campus at King’s Buildings. You can still see part of the bomb in the visitor centre.

Edinburgh University has connections to a number of Suffragettes, and a few years ago for the vote 100 campaign, colleagues and students worked together to create a histropedia timeline on Wikipedia,

The suffragettes and suffragists were campaigning for women’s rights, sex-based rights, struggling to get the right to do things like vote, access to education, the right have a bank account,  ability to get a mortgage in your own name , to not have to leave your job when you got married.

The right for all women to vote was not secured in the UK until 1928.  So we are not yet at 100 years.

The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 It is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Reform Act.[2][3] The 1928 Act widened suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men. It gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Prior to this act only women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications could vote.

About 30% of my current staff in LTW are under 30, so the women in our office wouldn’t have been able to vote.

This was Tory reform and one of the reasons that Bessie later gave her Boudica brooch to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become Prime Minister. Some of those rights were still not in place until well into the 1970s, and still are not in many countries in the world.

I am privileged to have grown up in a time when I was able to go to university, get a job and pay my own mortgage. It wasn’t until the sex discrimination act 1975 after that banks were required to treat women equally and women were able to get mortgages in their own name without a male guarantor. Still women suffer a structural pay gap.  there is no English region where a single woman on median earnings can afford to rent or buy an averagely priced house.

But now we are allowed to have an education, and we can work in universities and so we do.  This year for the first time, LTW is equally filled with men and women and the pay gap is as small as I can possibly get it.

Our Learning Spaces teams teams’ fit out these rooms, and all the other central teaching spaces on campus- that’s 400 rooms, which a combined collection of around 10,000 pieces of kit.

if you were here last year, I made a tenuous connection between Charlotte’s work finding fossils in chalk cliff and classroom chalk,

This year I am going to make a similarly tenuous connection between playing the bagpipes and being heard.

Microphones and catch boxes.  Not only that presenter should be their microphones, but that students should not be shy in requesting a microphone if they want to speak, we have catch boxes available in every room and they are for students to use. Let your voice be heard.

 

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