Dame Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair DBE (23 September 1846 – 13 February 1941) was a Scottish campaigner for women's education and women's suffrage, active in the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women and the Ladies' Edinburgh Debating Society, which she founded before she was 20.
Born into a well-to-do family in Edinburgh, Sarah was the daughter of daughter of Major Arthur Mair of the 62nd Regiment and Elizabeth Harriot Mair (née Siddons). She was the granddaughter of actor Henry Siddons and great-granddaughter of actress Sarah Siddons. Mair started the Edinburgh Essay Society, soon renamed the Ladies' Edinburgh Debating Society when she was 19.
Mair was president of the society for 70 years. The society met in the spacious Mair family home in the New Town and offered Edinburgh women of a certain background the chance to discuss social questions while learning public speaking and debating skills. They published the Ladies' Edinburgh Magazine, called The Attempt until 1876, which linked them with readers across the country. It was edited by Mair and Helen Reid. Charlotte Yonge contributed, and Mair reviewed Josephine Butler's essay collection Women's Work and Women's Culture.
This society and its headquarters in the Mair dining-room were the focus of much effort to promote women's rights and education, spearheaded by women from professional, usually prosperous families. Louisa and Flora Stevenson were early members, as were Louisa Lumsden, founder of St Leonards School in St Andrews, and Charlotte Carmichael, mother of Marie Stopes.
The society debated the question of women's suffrage at intervals, with Mair a lifelong supporter of votes for women. In 1866 and 1872, Sarah Mair found that she and her fellow-suffragists were in the minority, but from 1884 onwards motions in favour of women's suffrage were carried by increasing majorities. Mair belonged to the Edinburgh National Society for Women's Suffrage which had been established in 1867 as the first Scottish society campaigning for votes for women and which sent speakers all over Scotland. Later she became president of the society, and then president of the Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies. She was often able to mediate between groups with different approaches to campaigning for the vote. Once women over 30 were enfranchised in 1918 she led the Suffrage Society into a new phase as the Society for Equal Citizenship.
Sarah Mair was an important member of the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association in 1867. She was present at the meeting when the Association was founded, but was not considered a founder member, presumably because she was unmarried and rather young. She and Mary Crudelius were willing to proceed one step at a time towards their goal of equal access to university education for both sexes, with Mair believing a practical approach would lead to the right results. However, ultimately they wanted more than a separate system for women, however good the teaching.
In 1876, Mair led an effort to improve the pre-university stage of women's education and advertised classes in St. George's Hall to help women pass the exams which counted as a university entrance qualification for men. She helped develop correspondence courses for women who could not attend classes, and then in 1886 she was active in setting up St George's Training College, followed by St. George's High School for Girls in 1888. The training college was the first Scottish institution training women to teach in secondary schools and the high school was the first Scottish day school for girls which taught them all the way up to university entrance level. Girls from St. George's were among the first female graduates of Edinburgh University. Sarah Mair was a school governor there all her life.
She also acted as treasurer of the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women's Masson Hall project, and chaired committees of the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women and Children and the Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital. During the first world war her association with Elsie Inglis continued as she was president of the Hospitals Committee of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service. She also found time to prove a woman could have skill in both archery and chess, and belonged to the Ladies' Chess Club.
Her death at her niece's home in Buckinghamshire was followed by a funeral service in St Mary's Cathedral. 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".
- "Dame Sarah Mair". The Times. The Times Digital Archive. 24 February 1941. p. 7.
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