Emily Davies

National Union of Women's Suffrage march, 1908: Lady Frances Balfour, Millicent Fawcett, Ethel Snowden, Emily Davies, Sophie Bryant
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • Known for: founding Girton College, advocate of women's higher education
  • Dates: April 22, 1830 - July 13, 1921
  • Occupation: educator, feminist, women's rights advocate
  • Also Known as: Sarah Emily Davies

About Emily Davies

Emily Davies was born in Southampton, England. Her father, John Davies, was a clergyman and her mother, Mary Hopkinson, a teacher. Her father was an invalid, suffering a nervous condition. In Emily's childhood, he ran a school in addition to his work in the parish. Eventually, he gave up his clergy post and school to focus on writing.

Emily Davies was privately educated -- typical for young women of that time. Her brothers were sent to school, but Emily and her sister Jane were educated at home, focusing mainly on household duties. She nursed two of her siblings, Jane and Henry, through their battles with tuberculosis.

In her twenties, Emily Davies' friends included Barbara Bodichon and Elizabeth Garrett, advocates of women's rights. She met Elizabeth Garrett through mutual friends, and Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon on a trip with Henry to Algiers, where Bodichon was also spending the winter. The Leigh-Smith sisters seem to have been the first to introduce her to feminist ideas. Davies' frustration at her own unequal educational opportunities was from that point directed into more political organizing for change for women's rights.

Two of Emily's brothers died in 1858. Henry died of tuberculosis which had marked his life, and William of wounds sustained in the fighting in the Crimea, though he had moved on to China before his death. She spent some time with her brother Llewellyn and his wife in London, where Llewellyn was a member of some circles that promoted social change and feminism. She attended lectures of Elizabeth Blackwell with her friend Emily Garrett.

In 1862, when her father died, Emily Davies moved to London with her mother. There, she edited a feminist publication, The Englishwoman's Journal, for a time, and helped found the Victoria magazine. She published a paper on women in the medical profession for the Congress of the Social Science Organization. 

Soon after moving to London, Emily Davies began working for the admission of women to higher education. She advocated for the admission of girls to London University and to Oxford and Cambridge. When she was given the opportunity, she found, on short notice, more than eighty female applicants to take exams at Cambridge; many passed and the success of the effort plus some lobbying led to opening the exams to women regularly. She also lobbied for girls to be admitted to secondary schools. In the service of that campaign, she was the first woman to appear as an expert witness at a royal commission.

She also became involved in the wider women's rights movement, including advocating for women's suffrage. She helped organize for John Stuart Mill's 1866 petition to Parliament for women's rights. That same year, she also wrote Higher Education for Women.

In 1869, Emily Davies was part of a group that opened a women's college, Girton College, after several years of planning and organizing. In 1873 the institution moved to Cambridge. It was Britain's first women's college. From 1873 to 1875, Emily Davies served as mistress of the college, then she spent thirty more years as Secretary to the college. This college became part of Cambridge University and began granting full degrees in 1940.

She also continued her suffrage work. In 1906 Emily Davies headed a delegation to Parliament. She opposed the militancy of the Pankhursts and their wing of the suffrage movement.

In 1910, Emily Davies published Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women. She died in 1921.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Emily Davies." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/emily-davies-biography-3528806. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 25). Emily Davies. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-davies-biography-3528806 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Emily Davies." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-davies-biography-3528806 (accessed June 7, 2023).