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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...

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Emily Davies England 1860 - 1921 Higher Education

Emily Davies image 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.


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