A guest post by Chloe Elder, New College Library Special Collections Digitisation intern
From the depths of New College Library’s archives, a selection of class photographs from 1857 to 1930 has been digitised and uploaded to the Open Books website, accessible at openbooks.is.ed.ac.uk. The photographs show the students and staff of New College’s past, each of whom make up a part of the School’s long history. You may recognise, for example, Principal Robert Rainy, who lends his name to the College’s Rainy Hall, sat front and centre of every photo during his time as principal from 1874 to 1900. And behind Rainy and succeeding principals stand rows of students, ascending the same courtyard steps that today welcome over 400 undergraduate and postgraduate students to the School of Divinity.
Not unlike most colleges and universities before the late twentieth century, New College had a male-dominated student body. But while I was scanning photograph after photograph of men in suits, the hem of a skirt caught my eye. Two women sat in the front row of students in a class photograph for the 1923-24 academic year. Five women stood among the group of students in the year following. And women continued to appear in class photographs thereafter.So, who were these first ladies of New College? I used the University’s Historic Alumni database, accessible at collections.ed.ac.uk/alumni, to find out.
I chose at random “Miss E.G.K. Hewat,” shown wearing a hat and gloves in the front row the ‘Winter Session, 1923-1924.’ The database indicated that this was Elisabeth Glendinning Kirkwood Hewat, who attended New College from 1922 to 1926. Provided with her full name, a little more research quickly revealed that she was an influential missionary, historian, ecumenicist, and, not least, a life-long advocate of women’s equality in the Church of Scotland. Her PhD Thesis is now kept in the Special Collections at New College Library, and available digitally via the Edinburgh Research Archive.
Now, almost a century after that photo was taken, New College is a pioneer in women’s equality. Over sixty percent of undergraduate students and one third of academic staff are women. And in 2014 the School of Divinity was the first Theology and Religious Studies department in the UK to be awarded a Bronze Athena SWAN award, recognising the School’s commitment to promoting gender equality.In September 2016, two teaching rooms were renamed to honour the inspirational female theologians, Elizabeth Templeton and Marcella Maria Althaus-Reid. Their names now stand alongside Rainy’s as permanent fixtures of the school’s foundation.
And though times have definitely changed since the days that Miss Hewat and her colleagues studied and worked, we can see that the staircase of New College’s courtyard is still the best place for a photoshoot.
For more information about women’s equality and history at New College, see http://www.ed.ac.uk/divinity/quick-links/equality-diversity/ged-divinity and http://www.ed.ac.uk/divinity/news-events/latest-news/rooms-renamed-in-honour-of-two-inspirational-femal
Chloe Elder, New College Library Special Collections Digitisation Intern 2016
Christine Love-Rodgers, Academic Support Librarian – Divinity