Emily Davies (1830-1921), the daughter of a clergyman, was born in 1830 into a world where women were largely denied access to higher education and, because of their lack of formal education, were not prepared for it anyhow. The universities were bastions of male privilege and provided a professional education for doctors, lawyers, the clergy and secondary teachers, all professions closed to women. While Emily's brothers were sent to a public school and later university, Emily had to 'make do' with some lessons in French, Italian and Music from a French master at her home. It was the unfairness of this situation that led her in later life to campaign for the reform of girls' secondary and university education.
When London University refused to allow her friend Elizabeth Garrett, the right to sit for its matriculation examination in 1862, Emily immediately formed a committee to open university degrees to women on an equal footing with men. She insisted that access to university examinations was needed if women were to be motivated towards serious study. Their first victory came in 1863 when girls successfully sat for the Cambridge Local Examinations despite claims that they would all collapse with nervous hysteria and die of brain-fever.
The hardest struggle still lay ahead - to gain acceptance for women at traditional universities. Emily Davies wanted a college for women which would be similar to the colleges for men at Oxford and Cambridge. Such a college would:
1869 was a decisive year in this regard as the University of Cambridge approved of Emily Davies' new College for Women (later Girton College) at Hitchin near Cambridge. It opened in October 1869 with five students and was the first college in England founded exclusively for the higher education of women. The reaction of the Quarterly Review (1869) was predictable:
|The one thing men do not like is the man-woman, and they will never believe the College or University woman is not that type.|
Girton College was also the first residential women's college of higher education and by 1881 Davies had gained the right for Girton students to take the Tripos (Honours) examinations.
Newnham College, Cambridge, founded in 1871, favoured a different approach to women's higher education. It encouraged its students to study the traditional female subjects of English Language and Literature and History, take as much time as they liked and not compete with men. This different approach caused a certain amount of friction between the two colleges as Emily Davies did not want the women's colleges to be considered inferior to the men's colleges.