The Story of Chrystal MacMillan

There can be few places on earth where history and geography combine to such spectacular effect as in Edinburgh, this craggy windswept city of tenements and cobbled streets where the story of a nation is etched in stone.

In this place, visitors are marketed a colourful, often bloody and glorious past that is a backdrop to ordinary life for modern Scots. But if history is written by the victors and we are to know better who we are then the legends that swirl like the chill east wind through the streets and wynds of the Old Town need careful scrutiny. And what about those other stories, the ones that are rarely told?

Leave behind the castle with its military associations and head for the university hub of George Square. Amid the striking facilities named after figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and more recent educators is the only building named after a woman- and a little known one at that. But who was she and what is her story? A millennium plaque at the King’s Buildings gives a clue.

In honour of Jessie Chrystal MacMillan (1872-1937) Suffragist, founder of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, first woman science graduate of the University (1896).

Eschewing traditional gender roles, MacMillan studied mathematics, science and philosophy at the Universities of Edinburgh and Berlin. She became active in the movement for women’s suffrage and challenged the exclusion of female graduates from the election of university MPs when she conducted the Scotch Women Graduates’ Appeal to the House of Lords in 1908. Though the decision went against her, judges and press praised her performance.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, she resigned from the largely pro-war National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies then took to the world stage proposing a Women’s Congress in The Hague to enlist neutral countries in the drive for peace. During 1915, she travelled to 14 countries and met with 24 leading statesmen. She was a delegate to the International Congress in Zurich and in 1918 attended the Paris Peace Conference where she opposed harsh reparations against Germany. Later, she joined the legal profession when it was opened up to women and co-founded both the Open Door Council and Open Door International for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker.

Chrystal Macmillan fought injustice with reason and forethought at a time when the world badly needed both. In many ways ahead of her time, history would prove her right. Thanks to a vigorous campaign by university staff and students her name is written, quite literally, in the stones of the city of her birth. More people are now aware of her life’s work and are inspired by her example.

The question of who we really are is fundamental to our future. We must examine closely the towering bones of this great city, peel away its thin skin of rock and pageantry and see into its beating heart, discovering the hidden stories of all those who live here, past and present, and give it life. The legacy of a history honestly told is much richer than we could ever imagine.

Who Do We Think We Are? History, Edinburgh and the Story of Chrystal MacMillan in its original form was short-listed in the 2017 Tarbert Book Festival writing competition.

You can follow Mary on Twitter @mary_easson

Photo of Chrystal MacMillan courtesy of the Edinburgh University archive


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