The Story of Emily Davies and Women's Education

Welcome to our blog, where we delve into the remarkable life of Emily Davies and her efforts in women’s education. 

In a time when access to education for women was severely limited, Emily continuously advocated for equal educational opportunities. 

Join us as we uncover the inspiring journey of Emily Davies, whose legacy continues to shape the world of women’s education across the globe.

Two women graduating

Emily Davie’s Childhood

Emily Davies was born on April 22, 1830, in Southampton, and spent much of her childhood in Gateshead, near Newcastle, where her father served as a rector. Like many girls at the time, her education was limited compared to her brothers.

She focused on home duties and occasional lessons in French, Italian, and music. She met a network of female friends with similar ambitions in Gateshead and London, leading her to advocate for women’s rights. Following her father’s death in 1862, Emily and her mother relocated to London, where her activism flourished.

Young girl studying

What Inspired Emily Davies?

In January 1862, following her father’s passing, Emily moved to London with her mother, Mary.

Here is where she was able to meet friends from the Langham Palace group – Barbara Leigh Smith, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Francis Mary Buss – to advocate for women’s rights. 

Emily first met Smith in Algiers, where she was reassured that there were a lot of people who also had similar ideas and beliefs which encouraged her to take the steps forward. 

Woman holding another woman's hand

When Did Emily Davies Initiate Her Advocacy Work?

In 1866, Emily created the first women’s petition and presented it to Parliament.

She firmly believed that education was pivotal in empowering women in society, stating, “It is no wonder that people who have not learnt to do anything cannot find anything to do.” 

Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss and Emily Davies provided evidence before the school’s inquiry commission, advocating for women’s inclusion in university examinations on equal terms with men.

Person writing on a book

When Did Emily Davies Start The First College?

3 years later in 1869, Emily Davies and her friends opened the College for Women at Benslow House in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. She ensured that the curriculum followed by the college would be the same as male students and that they were equally rewarded for their achievements. 

This college however was not permitted to grant full degrees to women till 1948. Later in 1998, the 900 women who had earned a degree but never awarded one were honoured in a special ceremony. 

This college was moved to Girton College at the University of Cambridge in 1873. Emily Davies was the mistress of the college till 1875 after which she served as secretary till 1904.

Even after she retired from the college in 1904, she continued to contribute to the suffrage movement. She was always known to be highly organised and a woman with a strong work ethic.

She published on different educational and suffrage issues and was also the editor of the English Woman’s Journal and of the Victoria Magazine. 


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Other Notable Contributions Made By Emily Davies

London University Degrees 

In 1859, Emily Davies befriended Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and met the members of the Langham Place group in London. She supported Elizabeth’s aspiration to become a doctor and actively supported the ongoing campaign to help her complete her training and be licensed.

 Despite challenges, including a rejected application for Elizabeth to take the matriculation examination at London University, Emily persisted.

Although the initial efforts were unsuccessful, women were eventually permitted to take degree examinations at London University in 1878. 

Elizabeth became Britain’s first licenced female doctor in 1865, marking a significant milestone for women in medicine.

Two women hugging in graduation gowns

Kensington Society 

The Kensington Society provided a platform for women to gather and discuss issues concerning women’s rights and societal improvement. 

Emily who was the Secretary, initiated gatherings of like-minded women with shared interests. Held at 44 Phillimore Gardens, Kensington, the Society had notable members such as Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale, and Elizabeth Garrett.

Topics for debate were issued 4 times a year, one of which was the admission of women to University Local Examinations. However, the Society’s most significant achievement was the submission of a petition to parliament advocating for women’s suffrage on June 7, 1866. 

Through collective work, the Society played a significant role in advancing women’s rights during this period.

A group of women discussing

School Inquiry Commission 

In December 1864, the government established the Taunton Commission to assess and enhance middle-class secondary education in England and Wales.

Emily Davies successfully advocated for the inclusion of girls’ schools in the Commission’s scope. 

On November 30, 1865, Davies became the first woman to provide evidence in person to a royal commission as an expert witness.

Alongside other female witnesses like Dorothea Beale and Frances Buss, she highlighted the need for reform in female education. 

The Commission’s report, published in 1868, had reforms, including the Endowed Schools Act.

These are among the long list of consistent and significant contributions of Emily Davies throughout the years. Visit the Tributes To Emily Davies page on the Griton College website to learn more. 

Two kids learning

In conclusion, Emily Davies’s story stands as proof of the power of perseverance and passion in advancing women’s education.

Through her conscious efforts, she broke down barriers and paved the way for generations of women to pursue higher education. 

Her legacy continues to inspire and resonate today, reminding us of the importance of equal access to education for all. 

If you are a university student in Southampton, check out our Emily Davies student accommodation with a range of facilities to suit all your needs. 

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