Emily Davies, the daughter of Reverend John Davies and Mary Hopkinson, was born in Gateshead in 1830. John Davies held traditional views on education and whereas Emily's three brothers were sent away to boarding school, she was taught at home. Emily was very close to her older brother, John Llewelyn. His success at Cambridge University made her realize how she had been denied an equal opportunity to an academic education.
Emily provided important support to Elizabeth Garrett who had embarked on her attempt to become a doctor. For a while Emily considered the possibility of studying medicine herself, but eventually she decided that her poor early education made this impossible. Emily Davies now made the decision that she would dedicate the rest of her life helping other young women obtain the opportunities that had been denied to her. This included a desire that women should be admitted to higher education and the professions on equal terms with men.
Emily's first campaign was to persuade the authorities to allow women to become students at London University. She also became involved in a campaign to secure the admission of girls to the Oxford and Cambridge examinations. In 1864 Emily had her first success when the Schools Enquiry Commission agreed to look into gender inequalities in education. To support her campaigns Emily wrote her book The Higher Education of Women.
In 1865 Emily joined with her friends Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman's discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group formed the London Suffrage Committee and began organizing a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.
Emily soon found herself in disagreement with most of the other members of the London Suffrage Committee. Members associated with the Radical Party, such as Barbara Bodichon and Helen Taylor, wanted votes for women on the same terms as men. Davies thought that they had more chance of success if they only asked for votes for unmarried women.
After this dispute, Emily Davies did not play a prominent role in the suffrage campaign for the next twenty years. Instead she concentrated on the idea of founding a women's college. With the help of Barbara Bodichon and other feminists, Emily raised enough money to purchase Benslow, a house two miles outside Cambridge. In 1873 Benslow House was opened as Girton College. However, women students at Girton were not admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.
Emily's ideas on education were fairly conservative and this brought her into conflict with Barbara Bodichon. Emily believed that her students should concentrate on traditional subjects such as classics and mathematics whereas Bodichon favoured a more radical approach to the curriculum. The two women also disagreed on student discipline. Emily favoured a strict regime compared to Barbara's more liberal approach. Emily also insisted that the new college must be affiliated to the Church of England.
In 1889 Emily returned to the struggle for the vote when she joined the committee of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage. Emily played an active role in the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) but was totally opposed to the militant tactics of the suffragettes.
Emily also had disagreements with the leadership of the NUWSS. Emily did not support the idea that all adults should have the vote and in 1912 she resigned when the organisation decided to give its full support to the Labour Party. Emily now joined the much smaller Conservative and Unionists Women's Franchise Society.
In 1919 Davies was one of the very few early members of the first Women's Suffrage Society still left alive to record their vote in a Parliamentary election. Emily Davies died in 1921.