Davies, Emily (1830–1921)

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Davies, Emily (1830–1921)

English educationalist, principal founder of Girton College, Cambridge, and suffrage campaigner who devoted her long life to the struggle for equal rights for women. Born Sarah (a name she did not use) Emily Davies on April 22, 1830, in Southampton on the English south coast; died in London on July 13, 1921; daughter of John (a Church of England cleric and headmaster of a private school) and Mary (Hopkinson) Davies ; educated mainly at home by mother and tutors; never married; no children.

Family moved from southern England to Gateshead (1839); lived in London (1862–1921); edited Victoria Magazine (1864–65); involved in a suffrage movement (1862–67); served as member of the London School Board (1870–73); opened a college to provide women with university-level education (1869); was the main founder of Girton College near Cambridge (1873); was mistress of Girton College (1873–75); associated with the college for the rest of her life; resumed suffrage activities (1886); served as vice-president of Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association (1912). Awards: honorary LLD degree, University of Glasgow (1901).

Selected publications:

The Higher Education of Women (Strahan, 1866); Thoughts on some Questions relating to Women (Bowes & Bowes, 1910, contains reprints many of her essays and pamphlets).

On a sunny Friday afternoon in May 1897, hundreds of undergraduates gathered around Senate House Yard, near the center of the great English university at Cambridge. Full of high spirits, many leaned from windows, shouting and cheering as banners and posters were hung along college walls. An effigy of a woman student, clad in voluminous blue bloomers and astride a bicycle, was suspended from the top story of an adjoining bookshop. As the university dons, there to vote, emerged into the area from Senate House, they faced a barrage of flour, rotten eggs, confetti and fireworks. By late afternoon, the atmosphere had become wilder. A university proctor, employed to enforce the regulations governing students, was mobbed and, along with his bulldog, had to be rescued by the police. Nearby shops were raided for boxes and shutters, merchants' carts were seized, fences were pulled down: heaped together, they made a bonfire. Riotous activity continued until midnight when the fire brigade both extinguished the bonfire and hosed down the surrounding throng of undergraduates. The cause of the disturbance was a ballot, campaigned for by Emily Davies and others, to determine whether women should be awarded University of Cambridge degrees on the same terms as men.

In many respects, the household into which Emily Davies was born ill-fitted her for a life of political and educational campaigning. Her father John Davies was a scholarly man but one who shared those prejudices about the place of women that were common at the time. He also had a difficult personality; he could be self-righteous, disdainful and pedantic—traits that were to some extent shared by his daughter.

In all that concerned women, she was a revolutionary; in all else, a conservative.

—Barbara Stephen

John Davies was born in Wales in 1795 and in 1823 married Mary Hopkinson , the daughter of a businessman of Derby. (In a letter of 1868, Emily Davies suggested that unfortunate people such as herself, "who are made up of an ill-assorted compound of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon blood, are by the nature of their constitution continually impelled to say and do what they are sorry for afterwards.") After an education at the University of Cambridge, her father became a cleric and for a time proprietor and head of a boarding school for boys. He was running his school in Southampton when Emily, the fourth of five children, was born on April 22, 1830. John Davies, who wrote a number of books on theological topics, taught from economic necessity rather than a sense of vocation and was glad in 1839 to become the vicar of Gateshead, in the northeast of England. (He was offered the post by a friend and fellow Evangelist, the bishop of Durham—in keeping with the tradition that most clerical appointments in the Anglican Church were made through personal contacts.) Soon after arriving in Gateshead, he recommended that a local school run by one of his curates should no longer admit girls, as they had the effect of lowering its status. True to this precept, Emily and a sister were mainly educated by their mother, apart from a brief period at a local girls' school and some instruction in French and Italian by a tutor. Her three brothers were sent away to fee-paying schools and (except for one brother who articled to a solicitor) to Cambridge University. It is likely that an autobiographical element is present in an article of 1868 in which Davies wrote:

Probably only women who have laboured under it can understand the weight of discouragement produced by being perpetually told that, as women, nothing much is ever to be expected of them, and it is not worth their while to exert themselves.… Every effort to improve the education of women which assumes that they may, without reprehensible ambition, study the same subjects as their brothers and be measured by the same standards does something towards lifting them out of the state of listless despair of themselves into which so many fall.

Even though her early years were spent in constrained and genteel circumstances, Emily Davies did find outlets for her intelligence and energy. She helped her father in charitable and other duties about the parish. In 1848, she befriended Jane Crow , the daughter of a local businessman, who was later to introduce her to a schoolfriend, Elizabeth Garrett (later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson ), whose attempts to follow a medical career were greatly encouraged by Emily. Several months of 1851 were spent with her parents in Geneva, a holiday that improved her knowledge of other languages and broadened her horizons. Another foreign visit in 1858 to Algiers, where a brother had gone in the hope of improving his health, led to a meeting with Anne Leigh Smith , who was to introduce her to her sister Barbara Leigh Smith (later known as the artist and educational reformer Barbara Bodichon ).

An older brother, John Llewelyn Davies, had also become a cleric. He became vicar of St. Mark's, Whitechapel, in the east end of London in 1852 and was occasionally visited there by Emily. Though the family background was both socially and politically conservative, her brother became involved with the progressive circle surrounding F.D. Maurice, a leading Christian Socialist. (Margaret Llewelyn Davies , who through the Women's Co-operative Guild spent her life trying to improve the lot of working-class women, was John Llewelyn Davies' daughter.)

Thus, even in a Gateshead rectory, Emily Davies was becoming acquainted with some reformist ideas. She acted as the organizer of a local branch of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, which was founded in 1859. Jane Crow became first secretary of the society's London office, which was in the same building in which the Englishwoman's Journal was edited. Launched in 1858, this publication soon came to Emily Davies' attention and during visits to her brother she helped with the day-to-day work of the office. She was present at lectures delivered by Elizabeth Blackwell , the only legally registered woman physician in Britain (she had obtained her training in the United States); it was at this time that Emily Davies began to help Elizabeth Garrett along her often difficult path of medical training—one successfully trodden despite the many obstacles put in her way.

The death of John Davies allowed Emily to take up residence, along with her mother, in London, where she moved in 1862. For about six months, she acted as editor of the English-woman's Journal. In 1864, she edited for about a year the Victoria Magazine, a monthly established by Emily Faithfull . Though mainly of a literary character, the magazine also included articles on women's issues, notably Emily Davies' "The Influence of University Degrees on the Education of Women." To improve the standards of education in schools—necessary if women were to progress to higher education—she advocated examinations that were set and marked by external examiners. Some heads of girls' schools, who approved of the efforts of Emily Davies and others to organize such examinations, provided candidates. One supportive head was Frances Mary Buss , though Dorothea Beale , whose name is often linked with hers as a progressive headmistress, had reservations about examining girls. In this, Beale was not unusual. One schoolmistress, referred to by Emily Davies, believed examinations would "foster the spirit of confidence and independence which is too common amongst girls of the present day." Even an advocate of girls' examinations, the dean of Canterbury (Emily Davies was adept at recruiting supporters of the highest respectability), wrote to warn her that education should not result in the "sacrifice of that unobtrusiveness which is at the same time the charm and the strength of our Englishwomen." In 1865, the Senate of the University of Cambridge voted narrowly, by 55 votes to 51, to accept a recommendation that local examinations set by members of the university for boys' schools should be available also to girls' schools. This was to be for a trial period of three years, but once the precedent had been established opponents had to accept that the situation could not be reversed. Also in 1865, Emily Davies was invited to give evidence, along with Frances Mary Buss, to the government-appointed Schools Enquiry Commission, an indication of the reputation she had established in the field of education.

In the 1860s, Emily Davies was involved in activities to promote women's suffrage. She supported the radical Liberal candidate for the Westminster seat, John Stuart Mill, in the general election of 1865, and became friendly with his stepdaughter, the campaigner for women's rights Helen Taylor . John Mill warmly supported the emancipation of women and this aspect of his philosophy perhaps weighed more heavily with Davies than some of his other progressive ideas. She later left the women's suffrage campaign, in part because of the way some of its leaders associated it with the advanced wing of the Liberal Party. Emily Davies, whose views on many questions were highly conventional, wanted to avoid the identification of women's suffrage with one of the two main political parties, and she was always disinclined to compromise her opinions in order to retain a facade of agreement.

In any case, by the late 1860s she was deeply involved in the question of women's education. At the heart of her philosophy was the conviction that there should be no differences in the standards applied to men and women. She rejected the belief, widespread among the middle and upper classes, that such subjects as Greek, Latin, and mathematics were suitable for boys and young men while girls and young women were intended for nothing more intellectually demanding than music, needlework, and the basics of reading and writing. Women with ambitions to go beyond this level were often regarded as "masculine," while no husband, according to popular prejudice, would want a wife who appeared to be as clever as he was. In a similar vein, women were generally regarded as "the weaker sex," both physically and intellectually, and often women themselves accepted this as axiomatic and deferred to the dominant masculine ideology. Many parents equated ignorance with innocence at a time when polite society had a horror of indecorousness. Though Emily Davies could in 1864 present a paper at a meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, she could not deliver it herself: to do so would have been considered "unladylike," and it was read on her behalf.

Her paper, "On Secondary Instruction Relating to Girls," argued both for improvements in the standards of girls' education and the value

of the same types of examination for boys and girls. This latter position put her at odds with some supporters of educational reform who believed it would be asking too much of girls to compete on the same terms as boys. Similarly, those sympathetic to the idea of university education for women often believed it would have to be at a lower level.

However, a commitment to equal standards was maintained by Emily Davies in the protracted and complex developments that led to the founding of Girton College, near Cambridge. Family tradition might have inclined her towards forming links with Cambridge, where her father and brothers had studied; perhaps too, she preferred what in a letter to Barbara Bodichon of 1868 she called "the cool Cambridge manner," adding: "It is not half as pleasant as the kind, gushing way Oxford men have, but it comes to more." The details of how those links were made need not be given, though to begin with the college was opened, in 1869, with five women students at Benslow House, Hitchen, roughly half way between London and Cambridge. The students' examination papers were those sat by candidates at the University of Cambridge, an arrangement that was made privately with the examiners who had set the papers; the university authorities somewhat loftily announced that such a matter was none of their concern. This system, despite Emily Davies' tireless secretarial work, did not always operate smoothly. On one occasion, two candidates traveled to Cambridge to sit a paper (in a room in a hotel), only to wait for over an hour before the examination could start—the messenger carrying the paper had gone to a wrong address.

In 1873, following much effort to raise funds for a new building in the village of Girton, the college moved to within about two miles of Cambridge (the distance was carefully chosen as it was decided that contact with undergraduates at the male colleges should be discouraged). At Girton, some of the previous arrangements continued. Dons sympathetic to the idea of women's education provided informal assistance—in 1873, 22 out of 34 professors allowed women (chaperoned, of course) to attend their lectures—and papers were still marked outside the control of the university statutes. This meant that women did not receive degrees.

An effort was made in 1881 by supporters of degrees for women to improve the position. It was pointed out that the University of London had begun in 1878 to award degrees to women and that this disadvantaged those who studied at Girton and Newnham (the other Cambridge college for women, which Emily Davies always viewed with unfriendly rivalry). The outcome represented a compromise: women were formally allowed access to examinations; if successful, their names were published in the class lists, and they were awarded a certificate. It was an example of the piecemeal reform characteristic of modern Britain, as celebrated in the self-congratulatory verse of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson:

A land of settled government,
A land of just and old renown,
Where Freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent.

Freedom to be awarded degrees on the same terms as men, however, was slow to arrive. Even the much commented on achievement of Girton's Agnata Frances Ramsay , who in the classics examination of 1887 was the only first-class candidate, did little to change things. In March 1897, the Syndicate of the university produced a report recommending that women who passed their examinations should receive degrees. At that time, all men who had become Masters of Arts of the university (by the simple expedient of paying a fee a few years after the award of their Bachelors' degrees) could take part in votes concerning the university's statutes. Many were encouraged to believe that women and their supporters were asking for too much: the press frequently employed the phrase "the thin end of the wedge" and drew comparisons with the demands of the suffrage movement. Within Cambridge, the minority of dons who had opposed the higher education of women regrouped over the issue of the Syndicate's recommendations, and gained the support of those who held that the agitation on the women's behalf was disrupting the work of the university and bringing unwanted publicity. Old prejudices were revived about the fitness of women for intellectual activity. One flysheet put into circulation referred to the way men were favored by "Divine Providence," while a letter to the press was hostile to change on the more prosaic grounds that "to darn a stocking well and sew on buttons" would "contribute more to the general well-being than an ability to discuss the binomial theorem or the differential calculus."

Even many undergraduates were drawn into this spasm of reaction. A vote of the Union Society on May 11 condemned the proposed concessions by 1,083 votes to 138. This result anticipated a similar outcome when university MAs gathered to vote later that month; amid the uproar previously described, 1,713 men voted against the Syndicate's recommendations and 662 in favor. The more equal treatment of women at Cambridge was thus blocked for what was to be another quarter of a century.

Since the mid-1830s, Emily Davies had gradually become less involved in the running of Girton College. In the absence of a more suitable candidate, she had acted as its mistress from 1873 to 1875. It was her view that the head of the college should be a woman of some standing, and she declared herself delighted to be succeeded by Frances Bernard , a niece of Lord Lawrence who had spent some time in India assisting her uncle while he was viceroy there. A period of illness in 1876 led her to resign as secretary of the committee that administered the college, though she was given the title of honorary secretary, which she held until 1904. A person of decided opinions and persistent in seeking to apply them, Emily Davies inevitably disagreed with the approach of some of those with whom she worked. She was reluctant to allow the teaching staff at Girton a voice in the college's administration, while she did all she could to insist that available funds should be used to provide places for undergraduates rather than develop the sort of postgraduate activities that were becoming a feature of other Cambridge colleges.

Even at the height of her involvement with Girton, Emily Davies retained an interest in the work of other bodies, such as the London School Board (she was elected to it in 1870 and served for three years) and the London Schoolmistresses' Association, of which she was the secretary from its formation (after a meeting at her home) in 1866 until it was disbanded in 1888. In 1886, she joined the London National Society for Women's Suffrage and, in keeping with her apparently unlimited capacity for administrative work, joined its general committee in 1889. She took part in various constitutional methods of agitation for the parliamentary franchise—deputations, letter-writing, the gathering of signatures on petitions, public meetings—but deplored the militancy of those women who tried to force the granting of the vote through such tactics as chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and setting fire to pillar-boxes.

When in 1912 the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, to which the London group was affiliated, declared that candidates of the Labour Party (the only party pledged to women's suffrage) should be supported, she resigned. She then joined the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association, of which she became a vice-president. In 1918, at the age of 88, she cast her first parliamentary vote. It was also her last. She died on July 13, 1921, at Hampstead in north London. Had she lived another two years, she would have seen Cambridge concede the award of degrees to women, but with other restrictions maintained. It was not until 1948 that the end came to all formal distinctions between men and women at the University of Cambridge, in a reform that also abolished most of the old statutes that allowed graduates a voice in university affairs.

Emily Davies' papers, which were deposited in Girton College, contain her note objecting to any memoir of her work "of an intimate personal nature," while adding that "there are not materials for it." No study of her has revealed more than a record of a life of work on behalf of women. It would seem, to paraphrase the contemporary rhyme, that like "Miss Buss and Miss Beale, Cupid's darts she did not feel." Margaret Forster has suggested that "her sharp tongue and steely eye" made most men afraid of her. This might be true, but social convention—and practical considerations—allowed few Victorian women of similar background to have both a family and a public life. If not out of respect for her wish for nothing of an "intimate personal nature" but because it is fruitless to speculate on what might have been, the life of Emily Davies has to be estimated in terms of her efforts to improve the education, employment, and political position of women.


Bennett, Daphne. Emily Davies and the Liberation of Women 1830-1921. London: Audre Deutsch, 1990.

Bradbrook, M.C. "That Infidel Place": A Short History of Girton College 1869–1969. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Forster, Margaret. Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839–1939. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.

Megson, B., and J. Lindsay. Girton College 1869–1959: An Informal History. Cambridge: Heffer, 1960.

Rosen, Andrew. "Emily Davies and the Women's Movement, 1862–1867," in Journal of British Studies. Vol. 19, no. 1. Fall 1979, pp. 101–121.

Stephen, Barbara. Emily Davies and Girton College. London: Constable, 1927.

——. Girton College 1869-1932. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933.

suggested reading:

Levine, Philippa. Victorian Feminism, 1850–1900. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

McWilliams-Tullberg, Rita. Women at Cambridge: A Men's University—Though of a Mixed Type. London: Victor Gollancz, 1975.


Emily Davies papers, Girton College, Cambridge.

D. E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England

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Davies, Emily (1830–1921)

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