TOMORROW is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Chrystal Macmillan who is not hugely famous in her home country but who I consider to be one of the greatest Scottish women of all time.

I am frankly amazed that more is not being made of Macmillan’s sesquicentennial, though she will be celebrated at Edinburgh University which is rightly proud of their first female science graduate and which has a building, a studentship and lecture series named after the woman they have correctly described as an Edinburgh graduate and global citizen.

That pioneering degree in science was just one of Macmillan’s many ground-breaking accomplishments in a life that involved several careers – far too much material for this one column. I am particularly indebted to researchers Helen Kay and Rose Pipes for their work in chronicling Macmillan’s life and work, and as I always say, any mistakes are mine, not theirs. Please go online and search for their articles.

Jessie Chrystal Macmillan was born on June 13, 1872, the second child and only girl among the nine children of tea merchant John Macmillan and his wife Jessie Chrystal née Finlayson, a daughter of the manse. The family home was Corstorphine Hill House with which many readers will be familiar as today it forms part of Edinburgh Zoo.

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Macmillan was schooled locally until she was 16 at which point she went to St Leonard’s boarding school in St Andrews. St Leonard’s had visionaries at its helm who encouraged girls to study as if preparing for university even though Scotland’s four universities at the time admitted female students only to study medicine.

That changed in 1892 and Macmillan became one of the first women to study non-medical science at Edinburgh. She won prizes in subjects such as maths and chemistry and graduated with a first-class Honours science degree in 1896 – the first woman to do so. She then added to her BSc in maths and natural philosophy by taking a second degree in moral philosophy, also studying mercantile law and commercial and political economy.

Her mother had died on June 12, 1894, and Macmillan was studying in Berlin when her father died suddenly on January 8, 1901, at the age of 57. As happened in that era to so many women whose parents died, Macmillan returned to Corstorphine to manage the family home, some of her brothers still being teenagers. That did not stop her studying to be a lawyer, and she was also becoming known for her commitment to feminist causes.

Her interest in promoting rights for women, and especially the right to vote, had grown during her time at university, where she had been vice-president of the Women’s Debating Society. By all accounts a fine public speaker, she was a member of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies and travelled extensively to speak at meetings and help set up local branches – it should be noted that she believed in a non-violent route to reform and was therefore a suffragist, not a suffragette.

Chrystal Macmillan was catapulted to a degree of fame by her appearance before the House of Lords in 1908, when she argued the case for female graduates to have the same rights to vote as male graduates – at that time a few MPs were elected to represent Scotland’s universities rather than geographical constituencies.

The first woman ever to address the unelected second chamber, Macmillan fought the case in the Court of Session before appealing to the House of Lords, the issue turning on the definition of a “person” under law. Despite making what one Lord called one of the best speeches he had heard in the House, Macmillan lost the case though she had firmly established the concept that the legality of discrimination against women could be challenged in the courts.

Macmillan moved to London in 1913, and became an invaluable committee member of various suffrage campaigns, being elected secretary of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. Her campaign work went into overdrive and just before war broke out, she founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The anniversary will be celebrated at Edinburgh University

Trying to end World War I, Macmillan took a leading part in the very risky and highly audacious women’s conference for peace which took place at The Hague in neutral Holland in April 1915, despite opposition from the British Government and the press. This International Women’s Congress led to the formation of two delegations of women to meet world leaders, and Macmillan was on one of them, travelling across Europe to meet government ministers. Despite showing that mediation was a possible way to end the war, the women had to return home without any action from governments.

After the war, Macmillan began a new career when the law changed to allow women to become barristers – she started her studies at the age of 48 and four years later she was only the fourth woman to be called to the Bar in England where she promptly made her name as a qualified barrister.

In the meantime she continued to work for causes and embarked on several campaigns to get equal rights for women as citizens and in the workplace.

In July 1931, for instance, she opposed a government bill that discriminated against women receiving benefits. Her letter to The Guardian was quoted in Parliament: “This Bill proposes to make the conditions under which a woman receives unemployment benefit more onerous by reason of marriage. Since this benefit is part of the earnings of the insured worker, the real meaning of the proposal is that the married woman for the first time since her emancipation .… will be in a different position from the ordinary freeman with regard to her rights to sell her labour for gain.”

This was typical of her forensic approach to the law, and she made many such sallies into a whole range of debates, many of them surrounding the rights of women and poor people.

Her health failing due to heart disease, Chrystal Macmillan died at the age of 65 on September 21, 1937, in Edinburgh. She was buried alongside her parents in Corstorphine churchyard.