World-Changing Women: Emily Davies

Updated Wednesday 25th February 2015

Emily Davies firmly believed that education was fundamental in improving a woman's place in society and strived for equality. Read her story here...

Emily Davies England 1860 - 1921 Higher Education

Emily Davies image Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain Emily Davies portrait by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880 In mid nineteenth-century England the world of higher education, like many others, was closed to women.  Many people opposed the idea of women’s education on a range of economic, religious and social grounds.  Some even believed that women’s bodies were so physically ill-suited to studying that it posed a risk to their mental and physical well-being.  Excessive mental activity in women, especially during menstruation, was believed to cause acute weakness and weight loss, a condition described as ‘anorexia scolastica’.

Emily Davies was born on 22 April 1830, the daughter of a clergyman.  She spent most of her youth in Gateshead, Co. Durham, where her father was Rector.  She witnessed the living conditions of local working women and was prompted by this experience to found a branch of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women in the North East.  In 1862, after moving to London, Davies was able to pursue her developing interest in women’s rights. She helped put together the first women’s suffrage petition, presented to Parliament in 1866.

Davies believed that education was key to improving women’s place in society. After working to promote better secondary education for girls she turned to higher education, with the aim of gaining women entrance to University of London degrees and to the Cambridge Local Examinations. Her ambition was that women should have access to university education on exactly the same terms as men. This led to the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge, in 1869.  Here, Davies provided women students with the same curriculum as that followed by male students to ensure that women’s achievements would be recognised as equal.  

However, women were not awarded degrees on an equal basis to men at Cambridge until 1948.  Fifty years afterwards, in 1998, a special ceremony was held at the university to honour the 900 women who had earned, but not been awarded, degrees between 1869 and 1948.

This article is part of the world-changing women collection. All the articles in this collection are specially produced for the How women changed the world interactive tour created to reveal the untold stories the history books left out.

You can also view these articles without the interactive feature here.

 

Discover more about education, history and gender

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Moving education in Sri Lanka from equal access to full gender equality Creative commons image Icon uditha wickramanayaka under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

Education & Development 

Moving education in Sri Lanka from equal access to full gender equality

Sri Lanka has been lauded for equal access to education for girls and boys, but textbooks and traditions continue to play a role in perpetuating inequitable gender norms and stereotypes.Thursica Kovinthan explains more.

Article
World-Changing Women: Manuela Sáenz Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain article icon

History & The Arts 

World-Changing Women: Manuela Sáenz

Manuela Sáenz fought to liberate her Lima and Peru from Spanish colonialism and rose to be a general in Bolivar's rebel army. Discover more about her extraordinary tale...

Article
Outside the book: Two styles of love Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

History & The Arts 

Outside the book: Two styles of love

This video conveys how love expressed in Petrarchan and Libertine poetry says a lot about renaissance patriarchy.

Video
5 mins
10 things that ended in 2006 (when OpenLearn was born) Creative commons image Icon By Anders Henrikson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

10 things that ended in 2006 (when OpenLearn was born)

OpenLearn was born in 2006 but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) some things ended this same year. We look back as part of our ten year anniversary celebrations.

Article
Early Modern European lives: Glückel of Hameln Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain article icon

History & The Arts 

Early Modern European lives: Glückel of Hameln

Glückel of Hameln juggled being a mother to 14 children and took over her husband's business ventures. Read her extraordinary tale here. 

Article
Learn some nonsense by heart Creative commons image Icon Carissa Andrea Thrush [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr Creative Commons under Creative-Commons license activity icon

History & The Arts 

Learn some nonsense by heart

Go on an adventure with Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs, as you find a nonsense alphabet of animals and learn some nonsense by heart.

Activity
When the voluntary sector worked for the state Creative commons image Icon By comedy_nose via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

When the voluntary sector worked for the state

This year marks 100 years since the National Insurance Act. On 16 December 2011, administration of national insurance was placed in the hands of mutual aid bodies. We look at the lessons learnt since

Article
Good god! 12 labours of Putin is all about Vlad’s personality cult Creative commons image Icon Wikimedia under CC-BY-4.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Good god! 12 labours of Putin is all about Vlad’s personality cult

Is an art exhibition in Russia, conveying Putin as the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules), narcissistic, sinister or hilariously ironic?

Article
How women changed the world Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Stephen Collins activity icon

History & The Arts 

How women changed the world

Who wrote the first novel over 1000 years ago? Who disguised herself as a man to explore the new world? Take this interactive world tour to discover the stories the history books left out. 

Activity