Vote 100

University of Edinburgh's suffragettes fight for the right to vote

History of the University of Edinburgh's suffragettes fight for the right to vote, including their address to the House of Lords.

Photograph of Frances Simson, Chrystal MacMillan and Frances Melville outside the House of Lords. November 1908
Photograph of Frances Simson, Chrystal MacMillan and Frances Melville outside the House of Lords. November 1908

We're celebrating 100 years, to the month, that some women were able to cast their vote for the first time with a pop up exhibition from the University's archive collections that shows almost day by day the action taken by some of our early female graduates to legally change things for women.

Cleverly they used their recent right to graduate as a legal argument for the right to vote. This all pinned on the wording of section 27 of the Representation of the People Act (Scotland) 1868. At the time graduates had the right to send a member to the House of Commons to represent their University (this was abolished by the 1948 Representation of the People's Act). Edinburgh and St Andrew's together elected one member, Glasgow and Aberdeen another. Under the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 women obtained the right to graduate and so they applied for this right of enfranchisement through the University of Edinburgh's registrar.

Margaret Nairn, Frances Simson, Chrystal Macmillan with Elsie Inglis and Frances Melville formed a committee to take this fight on. In 1906 when an election took place for Edinburgh- St Andrew's constituency they applied to the Registrar of the University of Edinburgh for voting papers, followed by a request from their solicitors. It was at this point they were refused.

Not to be deterred, the women raised an action in the Outer House of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, listed as 'Margaret Nairn and Others against the University Courts of the Universities of St Andrew's and Edinburgh'. The action came before Lord Salvesen in June 1906 and the debate and decision was very much about the interpretation of the word 'person'. According to the act every 'person' on the register of the general council of a university had the right to vote. He found against them.

In concluding Lord Salvesen said that chiefly out of respect for women and a sense of decorum, they had been excused from taking part in public affairs and added:

'I am afraid this action, if it has served no other purpose, has at least demonstrated that there are some members of the sex who do not value their common law privilege'.

In November 1907 their case was heard before an Extra Division of the Inner House. Again it was refused so the group decided to appeal to the House of Lords.

Part Two: The House of Lords