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date: 29 September 2023

Davies, (Sarah) Emilyfree


Davies, (Sarah) Emilyfree

  • Sara Delamont

(Sarah) Emily Davies (1830–1921)

by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880

The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Davies, (Sarah) Emily (1830–1921), suffragist and promoter of higher education for women, was born on 22 April 1830 in Southampton, the fourth child and second daughter of John Davies DD (1795–1861) and his wife, Mary Hopkinson (d. 1886), the daughter of a businessman from Derby. At the time of her birth her father was acting as a locum in Southampton for a vicar who was seeking a cure for gout at Droitwich. John Davies was himself an invalid, who regularly moved his family's home in his search for bracing air to relieve his nervous disability. In her early childhood Emily's father was a parish priest in Chichester, where he also ran a school. He gave up both to concentrate on his writing, a luxury funded by Mary Hopkinson's allowance from her father. The family moved to Normandy in 1836, and then returned to settle near Chichester.

Family and home life

John Davies was a respected scholar whose work An Estimate of the Human Mind (1828; new edn, 1847) had led to his name being proposed in 1830 for the chair of moral and political economy at the newly established London University. An evangelical Anglican and a strict sabbatarian, his publications included Splendid Sins (1830), an attack on wealthy sabbath-breakers. In 1839 the bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, appointed him rector of Gateshead, co. Durham, where the family lived until 1861.

Emily Davies's three brothers were all formally educated along conventional upper-middle-class lines: (John) Llewelyn Davies and William Stephen Davies both attended Repton School before proceeding to Cambridge in preparation for the church, and the third brother was articled to a solicitor. Emily and her elder sister Jane were denied any serious schooling either at home or outside it, and were expected to content themselves with home duties such as needlework and, later, good works in their father's parish. In later life Emily stated that she resented the strict division between the education and privileges given to her brothers and the dull, repetitive, restricted life she and Jane were required to endure. Her two escapes seem to have been wandering about the slums of Gateshead and visiting her neighbours. Through two friends, Annie and Jane Crow, she met one of her lifelong allies, Elizabeth Garrett.

The demands of family duties fell heavily on Emily in the 1850s, when she was the companion to two of her siblings who were suffering from tuberculosis. She nursed Jane at Torquay from 1855 until her death in 1858. She was then sent to Algiers to join her younger brother, Henry. There she met another lifelong ally, Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh Smith), who was wintering there with her sister Annie. Her encounter with the Leigh Smith sisters appears to have been Emily Davies's first exposure to feminist ideas and to female political campaigning. Her inchoate and disorganized distaste for the traditional life of a clergyman's daughter and for the injustice of gender inequalities in the upper-middle-class family were crystallized and directed into what became the campaigns for women's suffrage and women's higher education.

The Langham Place group

The deaths in 1858 of Emily's brothers Henry and William, the latter a naval chaplain who died in China of wounds previously sustained in the Crimea, left Emily alone with her parents in Gateshead. She visited Llewelyn and his wife in London in the spring of 1859, and returned for a longer visit in September. Llewelyn, the sibling to whom Emily seems to have been closest, was a member of F. D. Maurice's circle and one of the earliest members of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, the platform for launching many mid-Victorian feminist campaigns. While in London Emily encountered the women who formed the Langham Place group, the English Woman's Journal (founded by Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes in 1858), and the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW, founded in 1859). With Elizabeth Garrett she attended the lectures of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor of medicine, who was visiting England; a meeting with Blackwell inspired Garrett to seek the opening of the medical profession to women.

Back in Gateshead during 1860–61, Emily founded a Northumberland and Durham branch of the SPEW, and letters from her advocating women's education and employment were published in a Newcastle newspaper. Following the death of her father, Emily and her mother moved to London in January 1862. From then until her death Emily was involved with campaigns to raise the status of middle-class women in Britain. In June 1862 her paper 'Medicine as a profession for women' was presented at the congress of the Social Science Association (it was read for her by Russell Gurney). In the same year she canvassed support for the efforts of Elizabeth Garrett and her father to open London University degrees to women. Between 1862 and 1864 she wrote for the English Woman's Journal, acting as editor during 1863, and was a founder of the Victoria Magazine—though she and her friends broke with this new journal when its publisher, Emily Faithfull, was named in the Codrington divorce case. Rigorous avoidance of women with questionable reputations was normal practice among early feminists, who were careful not to expose their campaigns to accusations of immorality.

Admission of women to examinations

The first success which Emily Davies achieved as a feminist campaigner was as secretary (from October 1862) to the committee set up to secure the admission of women to university examinations. As a first step, admission was sought to the local examinations for schoolboys established at Oxford and Cambridge five years earlier. In October 1863 the committee, chaired by Henry Alford, dean of Canterbury, and supported by prominent women educationists such as Frances Mary Buss and Elizabeth Bostock, persuaded the Cambridge local examination syndicate to open its examinations to girls on an experimental basis. Given only six weeks' notice, Emily Davies found eighty-three girls to present themselves (twenty-five from Miss Buss's North London Collegiate School). While not all were proficient (especially in arithmetic), many passed and none was hysterical or seized by brain fever and there was no scandal. In October 1864 a memorial organized by Emily Davies and signed by nearly a thousand teachers and more than a hundred 'ladies of rank and influence' requested that the Cambridge examinations be permanently opened; the proposal was accepted in the following year.

Davies then successfully lobbied the schools inquiry commission (the Taunton commission), set up in December 1864, to include girls as well as boys in its investigations of middle-class education. She gave oral evidence to the commission on 30 November 1865, the first of nine female witnesses (the others were Frances Buss, Mary Eliza Porter, Frances Martin, Eleanor Elizabeth Smith, Susan Kyberd, Gertrude King, Dorothea Beale, and Elizabeth Wolstenholme). Her appearance was significant: it was the first time women had given evidence in person to a royal commission as expert witnesses, and she and Miss Buss, who gave evidence on the same day, were nervous, but impressed the commissioners with their 'perfect womanliness'. The report of the commission, signed in December 1867, was a landmark in the feminist campaign for a serious secondary education for middle-class girls.

The Kensington Society and women's suffrage

In March 1865 Davies's allies in these successful campaigns formed a ladies' debating group, the Kensington Society, so called because it met at the Kensington home of Charlotte Manning. Emily Davies was secretary of the society, whose other members included Helen Taylor, Sophia Jex-Blake, Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale, Frances Buss, Frances Power Cobbe, Elizabeth Garrett, Isa Craig, and Elizabeth Wolstenholme. Through this group Emily Davies began for the first time to work for women's suffrage, helping to obtain nearly 1500 female signatories to a petition in its favour, which John Stuart Mill presented to the House of Commons on 7 June 1866. The group later quarrelled over the issue of votes for married women, with Davies and Bodichon wanting to campaign, initially, for the vote for single women and widows only, while Helen Taylor and Mill wished to include married women, on the principle of making suffrage equal for women and men. When a permanent suffrage committee was formed in November 1866, Emily Davies acted briefly as secretary, having refused to hold the position on a permanent basis. She was concerned that her involvement in the suffrage question might damage what had become her chief personal interest: that women should have access to a university education.

The higher education of women

In 1866 Emily Davies published her first and most influential book: The Higher Education of Women (new edn, 1988), probably an extended version of a paper which she had intended to read at the Social Science Association congress in 1865. Pressing the case for opening both professional careers and university courses to women, it was well received in the press and by reviewers; it challenged the medical and religious arguments against degrees for women, and argued, like Mill, that many differences between men and women were matters of convention, not of biology.

In the same year Davies founded, at a meeting in her home, the London Schoolmistresses' Association, to which she was secretary until its dissolution in 1888; among its first members were Frances Buss, Jane Chessar, Charlotte Manning, and Fanny Metcalfe. It was at a meeting of schoolmistresses in Manchester, on 6 October 1866, that she reached the conclusion that there was a strong demand for a college for women. The transformation of Queen's College, Harley Street, in London, into an institution for preparing women over eighteen to take London degrees appeared the most easily available option. When this proved impossible to achieve, Davies formed an executive committee, which met for the first time on 5 December 1867 to raise £30,000 to build a college for women in Cambridge. The earliest members were Lady Augusta Stanley, Henry Alford, Emilia Gurney (wife of Russell Gurney), Charlotte Manning, Henry Richard Tomkinson, Fanny Metcalfe, G. W. Hastings, James Heywood, H. J. Roby, J. R. Seeley, and Sedley Taylor. Barbara Bodichon joined in 1869 and Lady Stanley of Alderley in 1872.

Rejecting the idea of separate lectures for women, and obsessively focused on a residential college where young women would take the same courses and exams as men, Emily Davies set out on a controversial and lonely course. Her policy stood apart from that promoted by another group at Cambridge headed by Henry Sidgwick and Anne Jemima Clough, who successfully petitioned the Cambridge senate to institute special examinations for women over the age of eighteen. During the discussions on the constitution of her proposed college, in August 1868, Davies was adamant that the students should follow the ordinary Cambridge course taken by male students, even though the existing Cambridge curriculum and examination system were acknowledged to be archaic and in need of change. Here she was uncompromising: curricular and examination reform could not be pioneered by women without devaluing both the women and the reform. She was, it is now clear, right; but she made some enemies and lost many potential supporters by insisting that women students should be subjected to the existing Cambridge curriculum and system of assessment.

Girton College, Cambridge

By July 1868 the executive committee had obtained promises of only £2000 and the prospect of a new building seemed distant. Later in that year Davies found a villa (Benslow House) to rent at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and the first five students came into residence there in October 1869. Thus began Girton College, Emily Davies's most enduring memorial.

While the first students were staying in the house at Hitchin, reliant on men coming from Cambridge to teach them, Emily Davies and her committee were concentrating on building the real college at Girton, a village outside Cambridge. A physical separation from the male students, and from the city of Cambridge itself, where there were still considerable numbers of prostitutes, was seen as essential to protect the respectability of the young women embarking on their university studies. An alternative institution for women in city premises, however, supported by Henry Sidgwick, opened with Miss Clough as its head in October 1871. It later became Newnham College. Despite her increasing isolation and her difficult position as an ‘outsider’ in Cambridge, Emily Davies persisted with her plans. The target to be raised for the proposed college was lowered to £10,000 of which £7200 was donated, the rest having to be borrowed. She obtained the services of Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Manchester assize court, to draw up plans, and the now famous red-brick edifice rose from a muddy field in Girton.

The new building opened in October 1873, though in a raw state with piles of sawdust and lit by candles; the first winters were bleak and cheerless. Emily Davies, who supervised the move from Hitchin, had in 1872 become resident mistress—a post earlier held by her friends: Charlotte Manning (until 1870), Emily Shirreff (1870), Annie Crow (Mrs Austin), (1870–72), and, briefly, after Annie Crow fell ill, by Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley of Alderley. Emily Davies herself resigned as mistress in 1875, and was succeeded by Marianne Frances Bernard. Emily Davies resumed the secretaryship of the executive committee, but ill health forced her to resign in 1877. She continued as treasurer until 1882, and became honorary secretary from then until 1904. Adamantly opposed to the mistress joining the executive committee, Emily Davies often experienced uneasy relations with the younger women who were tutors or mistresses of Girton. With Louisa Lumsden, Constance Maynard, Elizabeth Welsh, and Constance Jones, all better educated than Emily herself, she had personality clashes, and disagreements over the rules and procedures that should govern the students' lives, the place of religion in the college, and spending priorities between research and further building. She continued to regard increasing the accommodation of the college, to give more women the opportunity of a university education, as having first claim on funds. Between 1875 and 1902 she pushed through an ambitious programme of expansion.

Emily Davies remained committed to opening university degrees to women on the same terms as men. Her manifesto Women in the Universities of England and Scotland (1896) condemned the attempts to create separate arrangements for women, together with women's continued exclusion from Oxford and Cambridge degrees. But she praised the civic universities in England, and the Scottish and Welsh universities, which granted degrees to women on the same terms as men. In 1901 the University of Glasgow conferred on her the honorary degree of LLD. Her collected essays with a preface by Constance Jones were published as Thoughts on some Questions Relating to Women (1910).

Later public work and death

Emily Davies had been elected to public office as a member of the London school board, representing Greenwich, in the first election held under the Education Act of 1870. She did not stand for re-election in 1873, concentrating instead on Girton. After giving up formal office at Girton in 1904, she returned to active suffrage work and became secretary in London of the National Society for Women's Suffrage, whose committee she joined in 1889. She led a suffrage deputation to Henry Campbell-Bannerman on 19 May 1906, but broke with the London society in 1912 when the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, to which it was affiliated, came out in support of the Labour Party. She then joined the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association and became one of its vice-presidents.

In 1912 Girton celebrated the jubilee of Emily Davies's move from Gateshead to London, fearing that she would not live to see the college's own jubilee. In 1914 she moved to Hampstead, where she was a neighbour of her brother Llewelyn until his death in 1916. By then she had outlived most of her friends. The death in 1917 of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson left Emily Davies as the sole surviving member of the original Langham Place group; she was the only one still alive to cast a vote in the general election of December 1918, the first after women won the parliamentary franchise. She died at her home at 17 Glenmore Road, Belsize Park, London, on 13 July 1921, and was buried two days later at St Marylebone cemetery, East Finchley.

Reputation and assessment

During her lifetime Emily Davies was a controversial figure among both opponents of and enthusiasts for the higher education of women. Her uncompromising position on Girton (insisting on exactly the same curricula and examinations for women as for men, and very strict conformity to the conventions of ladylike dress and deportment) alienated many one-time supporters in her lifetime and led to her posthumous excoriation by twentieth-century eugenicists and Freudians such as Meyrick Booth and Arabella Kenealy. Her obsession with buildings rather than scholarship, and her uneasy relations with the tutors and mistresses of Girton, led early historians of the college to react against her. However, subsequent writers have taken a more sympathetic view of her adoption of an uncompromising position, her stubbornness, and her fiery rhetoric, and she has been presented as the heroine of a speculative popular biography. Late twentieth-century historians of Cambridge have similarly been rather more enthusiastic in their evaluations of Emily Davies's contribution to the modern university than were writers in the first half of the century.

While Emily Davies's practical achievements are now recognized, her contribution to the history of ideas remains controversial. While some see her as essentially an activist and committee woman, others see her as an original thinker who combined radical ideas on gender with an inherent social conservatism. Central to this dispute is the question of beliefs and tactics. Davies's tactics were clearly to work with ‘establishment’ figures. Whether she shared their beliefs about society, or merely paid lip-service to them to achieve her feminist goals, must remain a point of contention.


  • B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College (1927)
  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • B. Caine, Victorian feminists (1992)
  • O. Banks, The biographical dictionary of British feminists, 1 (1985), 59–62
  • L. Holcombe, ‘Davies, Emily’, BDMBR, vol. 2
  • J. Howarth, introduction, in E. Davies, The higher education of women, new edn (1988), vii–liii
  • R. Strachey, The cause: a short history of the women’s movement in Great Britain (1928)
  • A. Rosen, ‘Emily Davies and the women's movement’, Journal of British Studies, 19/1 (1979–80), 101–21
  • M. Forster, Significant sisters: the grassroots of active feminism, 1839–1939 (1984)
  • G. Sutherland, ‘The movement for the higher education of women: its intellectual and social contexts in England, c.1840–80’, Political and social change in modern Britain, ed. P. J. Waller (1987), 91–116
  • R. McWilliams-Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men's university, though of a mixed type (1975)
  • M. Bradbrook, ‘That infidel place’: a short history of Girton College, 1869–1969 (1969)
  • S. Fletcher, Feminists and bureaucrats: a study in the development of girls' education in the nineteenth century (1980)
  • P. Hollis, Ladies elect: women in English local government, 1865–1914 (1987)
  • D. Bennett, Emily Davies and the liberation of women, 1830–1921 (1990)
  • J. Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1965)
  • The Times (16 July 1921)



Wealth at Death

£5440 17s. 2d.: probate, 8 Sept 1921, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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J. O. Baylen & N. J. Gossman, eds., , 3 vols. in 4 (1979–88)
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Girton College, Cambridge