Spotlight On: Emily Davies (1830–1921)

Who was Emily Davies? The short answer: She was a pioneer in the movement for access to equal education for women. She’s also one of my heroes. In honor of her upcoming 187th birthday, I’m posting the text of a presentation about Miss Davies that I gave to my Victorian Children’s Lit class in the fall of 2015. Read on to find out more about this fascinating protofeminist.


Meredith J. Madyda, Victorian Children’s Literature, Simmons College, Fall 2015

A Fighter for Educational Equality: Emily Davies, Founder of Girton College, Cambridge

The mid- to late-Victorian period was a time of major educational reform: The Education Act of 1870 was passed and the Girls’ Public Day School Trust and the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution were established. Female reformers worked tirelessly for equal higher education for women. Activists included Emily Shore, the Lawrence sisters, Frances Buss and Dorothea Beale, and the heroine of this paper, Miss Emily Davies.

Sarah Emily Davies was born on April 22, 1830, in Carlton Crescent, Southampton. Her parents were John Davies, a scholar and evangelical Anglican priest, and Mary (Hopkinson) Davies, daughter of a Derby businessman (ODNB 359). Emily’s father eventually gave up his priesthood and the management of a school in Chichester to devote himself to writing full time. Most of his work consisted of Evangelical pamphlets attacking Sabbath-breakers and Tractarianism. Financial care of the family fell to Mrs. Davies, who drew on an allowance provided by her father (ODNB 359, Caine 61).

All three of Emily’s brothers were allowed to attend public school, one of whom went to Repton, and two of whom went to Rugby. Two brothers went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, to prepare for the clergy, while the third was apprenticed to a lawyer. However, Emily and her older sister Jane were allowed neither homeschooling nor a school education. The girls were expected to be happy at home with the occasional paid music and language lessons, and volunteering in their father’s parish (ODNB 359, Caine 63).

Davies’s first exposure to feminist ideologies and women’s suffrage came in 1858, while visiting her brother Henry in Algiers. Here she met Barbara (Leigh Smith) Bodichon and her sister Annie Leigh Smith. The suffragette sisters inspired Emily to set out on her path to activism in favor of higher education and the vote for women (ODNB 359).

In 1861, Davies founded a Northumberland and Durham branch of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women; and, via a local newspaper, she began publishing letters in which she advocated for women’s education and employment.

After John Davies died in 1862, Emily and her mother moved to London, where Emily began her lifelong campaign to raise the status of middle-class British women (360). During the same year, she helped her friend Elizabeth Garrett gain support in her efforts to open London University degrees to women (360). Although these efforts failed, it was only seven years until Emily’s dream of higher education for women would come true.

In 1863, Davies became secretary to the committee to obtain admission for women to the university exams at Cambridge. The university consented to open the exams to girls on an experimental basis (360), and with six weeks’ notice, Davies rounded up eighty-three girls to sit the exams. Twenty-five of these students were from Frances Mary Buss’s North London Collegiate School. The following year, Davies gathered the signatures of nearly one thousand teachers and more than one hundred “ladies of rank and influence” (360) to push Cambridge University to permanently open the exams to women. It became reality in 1865.

Also in 1865, Davies, along with Buss and Dorothea Beale, and six other women, gave evidence to the Schools Inquiry Commission (Taunton Commission) as to why girls should be included in this investigation of the state of middle-class secondary education (360). As it turned out, the Commission discovered there were only thirteen secondary schools for girls in the entire country (National Archives).

Davies and her allies set up the Kensington Society—a ladies’ debating group—in 1865 (ODNB 360). The group, which included Beale, Buss, Bodichon, and Garrett, worked for women’s suffrage, but Davies eventually absented herself from the effort to gain the vote for women in order to put her energy into the cause most dear to her heart: residential, degreed university education for women (360).

Davies published The Higher Education of Women in 1866. The book “challenged the medical and religious arguments against degrees for women, and argued … that many differences between men and women were matters of convention” (360). She asserted that accurate knowledge about the supposed differences between men and women was non-existent, and until these differences could be proved, the matter should be set aside (Caine 80). Davies’s writing displays her “acute sense of humor and lack of sentimentality, sharpness of tongue, frankness, [and a] complete lack of sympathy with any of the Victorian idealization of womanhood” (56).

Also in 1866, Davies founded the London Schoolmistresses’ Association. During an Association meeting, Davies realized there was strong demand for higher education for women (ODNB 360), and in 1867, she undertook to raise £30,000 to begin a college for women at Cambridge.

For Davies, it was not enough for women to have access to higher education, but she believed strongly in women having the same educational opportunities as men (Caine 56). As she declared in The Higher Education of Women, Davies did not believe in intellectual differences between the sexes; men and women were equals by virtue of their common humanity (80). She felt that separate and different pedagogies for women further subordinated them to men and pushed the sexes farther apart (93). She rejected the “idea that women [are] innately suited for their social and domestic role” (93). Women “[need] education and training in childhood and youth, followed by occupations and employment” (93); Davies believed women who have professions or employment are happier than those who do not (93). She also believed women could have a career and a family; many literary women and schoolmistresses were married, and wives of clergymen did a fair share of work outside the home. She argued that educated women were more likely to be able to run a household and manage a career because they would gain the necessary tools to manage their lives with a minimum of effort (94).

At the time Davies was striving for educational equality, the outdated curriculum at Cambridge needed an overhaul. Henry Sidgwick, a professor at the university, wanted to update the curriculum, for he claimed the current standard of education at Cambridge was “so poor as to make it unsuitable for anyone” (89). Sidgwick wanted less emphasis on a classical education, and to add science, philosophy, economics, and history to the curriculum (Vicinus 125). Davies, however, “insisted that her students follow exactly the same course as the men, which meant taking the compulsory Greek examination and the Tripos examination within the stated limit of three years and one term” (125). Because she felt creation of a new curriculum for women would lead to giving women separate education from men, she preferred women to follow the same, outmoded curriculum as men rather than pioneer changes from which everyone could benefit (Caine 89). The “cruel irony” was that the university education of which Davies herself had been deprived should be “deemed worthless by the men who had benefitted from it at the very moment when she was seeking to make it available to other women” (90).

Contrary to author Charlotte Mary Yonge’s belief that the best school for girls should resemble a family environment (Yonge 31-33), Davies insisted Girton not be modeled on domestic life (Caine 65). Davies wanted Yonge to join the committee to organize Girton, but Yonge refused. In a letter (that strongly resembles Yonge’s own “Home, School, or Governess”) to Davies dated July 1868, Yonge told Davies:

I have decided objections to bringing large masses of girls together … and think that home education under the inspection or encouragement of sensible fathers, or voluntarily continued by the girls themselves is far more valuable both intellectually and morally than any external education. (Caine 87)

As Davies’s father was neither “sensible” nor concerned with his daughters’ education (unlike the fathers of Davies’s feminist contemporaries), Emily’s refusal to model the school on family, according to Caine, seems to be indicative of her “desire to avoid any further contact with family life.” She also felt that marriage would lead to loneliness and isolation (65).

Although she believed in the same education for men and for women, when it came to propriety and decorum, Davies was conservative. Caine points out the irony in Davies’s seeking to change the world for women, while also trying “to keep its fundamental outlines as they were” (101). Just because women could have the same education as men, it did not mean they could enjoy the same freedoms. She did not think women “playing football on their own lawn” was acceptable sport (98). She expected young women to act like ladies at all times (99).

Unfortunately, by July of 1868, Davies had only been able to obtain £2000 for the building of a new school, and later that year, she rented a villa in Hitchin, Hertfordshire to act as a temporary location for the college. In 1869, Davies, her old friend Barbara Bodichon, and Lady Augusta Stanley opened Girton College, “Britain’s first residential college for women offering an education at degree level” (“Girton’s Past”). I have italicized the key phrase of this statement; women were not allowed to gain full degrees at Cambridge until 1948. At the time of the College’s opening at Hitchin, five female resident students took up their studies. Emily Davies’s brain child—Girton College—was born, albeit not in the location she had hoped. Regarding the temporary location at Hitchin, in a letter to Barbara Bodichon, dated 1872, Davies states, “I never thought of departing in peace till the College is incorporated, and in its own building, & able to pay its way. To that I look forward” (Collected Letters 365). Davies’s wish came true in 1873, when after several years of fundraising, a new building was finally erected, and the ladies of Girton moved in. At this time, Davies took up the post of resident mistress (several other women had acted in the position prior to the school’s move), where she stayed until she resigned in 1875, after which she held various positions with the college’s executive committee until she gave up committee work completely in 1904.

When the Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870, women were allowed to serve as board members. Davies was appointed to the London School Board (the only board created specifically by the Act; it lasted until 1904). She served as representative for Greenwich from 1870-1873, at which time she decided to devote all of her energy to Girton (ODNB 361).

In 1918, Davies cast a vote in the first general election after women won the parliamentary franchise. I assume it was a bittersweet experience, for Emily was the only remaining living member of her large group of colleagues and friends. She died a few years later, on July 13, 1921, at her home in London. She is buried at St. Marylebone cemetery in East Finchley (ODNB 361).

Girton College’s website proudly declares, “From the day the door first opened, to as recently as last week, Girton has had the knack of changing people’s lives. They, in turn, have gone on to shape the future—or some part of it at least.” Miss Davies would certainly approve of how far her dream has come. In 1976, Girton was one of the first women’s colleges to go co-ed, and I imagine Emily Davies, who wanted men and women on equal academic footing, would accept this change … but she might not be too keen on women running around a football pitch.



Image of Emily Davies from and used here without permission.

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