Celebrating Dame Sarah Siddons on International Women's Day

Category: Reading

In 1865, a young woman, determined to do something about the stark difference between education and suffrage for women and men, set up the Edinburgh Essay Society (later known as the Ladies’ Debating Society) at the age of just nineteen. Through this society, she sought to give women a platform where their voices could be heard, by practicing speaking in public, debating, and taking part in the discussion of social issues.

Her name was Sarah Siddons Mair. Born in 1846, Mair was the great-great granddaughter of the actress Sarah Siddons, who was best known for her portrayal of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Sarah Mair carved a name of her own, however, as a central figure in the Scottish women’s movement. She was a lifetime advocator for women’s education and suffrage, an effort which was reflected in her work as a writer, reviewer, editor and campaigner.

Mair was a lifetime advocator for women’s education and suffrage

Her early years as president of the Ladies’ Debating Society already hinted towards her motivation towards improving women’s education and suffrage. Thanks to her mother, she was well versed in literature, and was recorded as saying that both she and her sisters were ‘fed and clothed on Shakespeare.’ Her debating society met in the dining room of her family home, and successfully published the Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine in 1876, attracting influential writers such as Charlotte Yonge and other women who went on to become prominent figures in suffrage, education, and welfare in Scotland.

A member of the Ladies’ Debating Society wrote about Mair and the importance of the society she founded, declaring:

‘More than one woman in public life today owes, not only her position, but the fact that it is possible for her to hear the sound of her own voice raised on the public platform with qualms of mauvais honte to the gracious encouragement and sybtle sympathy of Sarah Siddons Mair, always the “mirror of all courtesy”.’[1]

At all times she was known for her tireless campaigning for higher education for women, and this continued to evolve in the years that followed, whilst alongside Mary Crudelius and others, Mair was involved in the founding of the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women in 1867, which campaigned for higher education for women until 1892. In the words of Crudelius, the final aim of this Association was ‘the throwing open of the University to [women], not the organising of a special college for women.’

Sarah Siddons Mair

During this time Mair continued to work on a number of successful projects, including the Masson Hall Project, and the setting up of hospitals in Edinburgh with Elsie Inglis and Sophia Jex-Blake. She kept her attention on improving the pre-university stage of women’s education by offering classes in St George’s Hall, and was active in setting up St George’s Training College in 1886. Two years later, she helped establish St George’s School for Girls, which was the first Scottish day school for girls teaching them to university level, and raised some of the first female graduates of the University of Edinburgh.

Sarah Siddons Mair was undeniably a woman of many skills and talents, and was even known for her talent in archery and chess, belonging to the Ladies’ Chess Club. She lived her whole life in Edinburgh’s New Town, and died at the age of 94 in 1941, with her funeral held at St Mary’s Cathedral. She was buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Churchyard, and an obituary in The Scotsman called her a ‘woman pioneer’ and a ‘venerable and notable Edinburgh lady, one who has helped make history in her time.’

Today, we will be celebrating the life and work of Mair with the unveiling of a plaque at her home at 29 Abercromby Place in Edinburgh, in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland, the Royal Scots Club, and St George’s School for Girls.

[1] Rae, Letticle Milne: Ladies in Debate: Being a History of the Ladies’ Edinburgh Debating Society, 1865-1935

Need more inspiring women in your life? Check out our 15 Books About Women's Suffrage book list

Find out more about Sarah Siddons Mair on the City of Literature website. 

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