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This article is about the women's education advocate. For the pottery decorator, whose married name was Emily Grace Davies, see Grace Barnsley

Sarah Emily Davies (22 April 1830 – 13 July 1921) was an English feminist and suffragist, and a pioneering campaigner for women's rights to university access. She is principally remembered as the co-founder and an early Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge University, which was the first college in England to educate women.

Sarah Emily Davies
Emily Davies-200px.jpg
Emily Davies portrait by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880
Born(1830-04-22)22 April 1830
Carlton Crescent, Southampton
Died13 July 1921(1921-07-13) (aged 91)
Known forfounder Girton College, Cambridge


Davies was born in Carlton Crescent, Southampton, England to an evangelical clergyman and a teacher,[1][2] although she spent most of her youth in Gateshead, where her father, John D. Davies, was rector.[3]

Davies had been tempted to train in medicine and wrote the article "Female Physicians"[4] for the feminist publication, the English Woman's Journal in May 1860, and "Medicine as a Profession for Women" in 1862.[5] She also "greatly encouraged" her friend Elizabeth Garrett in her medical studies.[6]

Women's rightsEdit

In 1862, after the death of her father, Davies moved to London, where she edited the English Woman's Journal, and became friends with women's rights advocates Barbara Bodichon, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her younger sister Millicent Fawcett. Davies became a founding member of a women's discussion group, the Kensington Society, along with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss, who together unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament to grant women voting rights.[7]

Davies began campaigning for women's rights to education and to degrees and teaching qualifications. She was active on the London School Board and in the Schools Inquiry Commission and was instrumental in obtaining the admission of girls to official secondary school examinations. Davies then advocated the admission of women to the Universities of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Like all universities at this time, these were exclusively male domains.[8]

Davies also became involved in the suffrage movement, which centred on a woman's right to vote. She was involved in organising for John Stuart Mill's 1866 petition to the British Parliament) (which was signed by Paulina Irby,[9] Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and 15,000 others)[1] the first to ask for women's suffrage. That same year she also wrote the book The Higher Education of Women.[8]

Girton CollegeEdit

In 1869, Davies led the founding of Britain's first women's college,[10] with the support of Frances Buss, Dorothea Beale and Barbara Bodichon.[11] Girton College was initially established in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with Charlotte Manning as the first Mistress. The college later moved in 1873 to the outskirts of Cambridge.[citation needed]

Davies strongly advocated a quality of curriculum that was equivalent to those offered to men of the time.[11] Despite the Senate rejecting her proposal to let women officially sit for the papers, Davies continued to train students for Tripos exams on an unofficial basis.[11]

From 1873 to 1875, Davies served as mistress of the college, where she then served as Secretary until 1904.[citation needed] The college only began to grant full Cambridge University degrees to women in 1940.[8]

Davies persistent fight for equal education for women was instrumental in the founding in 1875 of Newnham College, which would be led by Anne Jemima Clough.[11]

In June 1901, Davies received the honorary Doctor of Laws (DLL) from the University of Glasgow.[12]

Davies also continued her suffrage work. In 1906, she headed a delegation to Parliament. She was known for opposing the militant and violent methods used by the Suffragette part of the women's suffrage movement, led by the Pankhursts.[8]

In 1910, Davies published Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women (OCLC 788783). She died in 1921.


Many persons will reply, without hesitation, that the one object to be aimed at, the ideal to be striven after, in the education of women, is to make good wives and mothers. And the answer is a reasonable one, so far as it goes, and with explanations. Clearly, no education would be good which did not tend to make good wives and mothers; and that which produces the best wives and mothers is likely to be the best possible education. But having made this admission, it is necessary to point out that an education of which the aim is thus limited, is likely to fail in that aim.

— Emily Davies, The Higher Education of Women, pp. 10–11.[13]

What is really wanted in a woman is, that she should be a permanently pleasant companion. So far as education can give or enhance pleasantness, it does so by making the view of life wide, the wit ready, the faculty of comprehension vivid.

— Emily Davies, The Higher Education of Women, p. 27.[14]


In 2016, the Council of the University of Cambridge approved the use of Davies's name to mark a physical feature within the North West Cambridge Development.[15]

On 30 June 2019, a Blue Plaque jointly commemorating founders Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon was unveiled at Girton College, Cambridge by Baroness Hale, President of the Supreme Court, as part of the college's 150th anniversary celebrations. The plaque is sited on the main tower at the entrance to Girton off Huntingdon Road.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Delamont, Sara. "Davies, (Sarah) Emily". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32741.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Leonard, A. G. K. (Autumn 2010). "Carlton Crescent: Southampton's most spectacular Regency development" (PDF). Southampton Local History Forum Journal. Southampton City Council. pp. 41–42. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 January 2013. Retrieved 23 March 2012. (NOTE: her birth date is incorrect in this source.)
  3. ^ The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, ed. Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy (London: Batsford, 1990), p. 269.
  4. ^ Davies, Emily (May 1860). "Female Physicians". English Woman's Journal.
  5. ^ Davies, Emily (11 June 1862). "Medicine as a Profession for Women". paper read out by Russell Gurney at the London meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science.
  6. ^ Blake, Catriona (1990). The Charge of the Parasols: Women's Entry to the Medical Profession (First ed.). London, UK: The Women's Press Limited. p. 57. ISBN 0-7043-4239-1.
  7. ^ "Emily Davies". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d Biography. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  9. ^ "Miss Paulina Irby – an Early Suffragist". The Common Cause. 1915. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  10. ^ Girton College Register, 1869–1946: Cambridge; CUP; 1948.
  11. ^ a b c d Gould, Paula (June 1997). "Women and the Culture of University Physics in Late Nineteenth-Century Cambridge". The British Journal for the History of Science. 30 (2): 127–149. doi:10.1017/s0007087497002987.
  12. ^ "Glasgow University jubilee". The Times (36481). London. 14 June 1901. p. 10.
  13. ^ Davies, Emily (1866). The Higher Education of Women.
  14. ^ Davies, Emily (1866). The Higher Education of Women.
  15. ^ Administrator (29 January 2015). "Street Naming". Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  16. ^ "Cambridge college unveils blue plaque for 'pioneering' women founders". BBC News. 1 July 2019. Retrieved 1 July 2019.

Further readingEdit

External links and referencesEdit

Academic offices
Preceded by
Annie Austin
Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Marianne Bernard