Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Emily Davies: A College of Her Own

Sarah Emily Davies (born 22 April 1830)

The pioneering English feminist and suffragist Emily Davies was born on this date in 1830. The daughter of a clergyman and educated informally at home, Davies went on to become one of the foremost advocates of women's education, in particular of opening universities to women.

An 1880 portrait of Emily Davies
In 1869, Davies and a few colleagues opened a college for women at Hitchin (in Hertfordshire). In 1873, the institution, Girton College, moved to Cambridge. But unlike Oxford, which admitted women fully to the university in 1920, Cambridge did not accept women’s "full membership" in the university until 1948; formal efforts to admit women to the university were defeated in 1887, 1897, and again, after World War I, in 1920.

The very question of granting young women Cambridge degrees was deemed so offensive, in fact, that the protests of male students in 1897 resulted in significant property damage.

Celebrating their exclusion of women in 1920, male undergraduates destroyed the college gates at Newnham. (The gates had memorialized Anna Jemima Clough, an English suffragist who was the first principal of Newnham when it opened to house women attending a series of lectures "for ladies" at Cambridge.)

Davies died in 1921, long before Cambridge women could earn degrees. She was not alive in October 1928, when Virginia Woolf delivered a pair of lectures on women and fiction that would be published a year later as A Room of One's Own.

An excellent biography, Barbara Nightingale Stephens's 1976 Emily Davies and Girton College is still in print.* Davies's 1866 The Higher Education of Women is also available, in print or online.

It is also easy to find out about Davies and Girton College at the college's website.

Girton College today

Update, 2021: Girton College celebrated the centenary of Emily Davies's death, recognizing her life and work. An online "exhibition" is available, including a detailed biography and a "Fanfare to Girton," composed by Jasper Dommett (click here).

*As of 2022, the book seems to be no longer in print. but you can still find a used copy online or access it through the Internet Archive.