TODAY is International Women’s Day – a time in which we think about and pay tribute to the women who devoted their lives to make a better future for women across the globe.

One such woman was Emily Davies (1830-1921). She was born in Southampton and a blue plaque marks the house in Carlton Crescent.

In the mid nineteenth century, education for girls was minimal and often non-existent. Middle class girls received their education at home, often from their mothers, and there was an emphasis on lady-like accomplishments like needlework and playing the piano.

Further education was not an option and the universities were male only.

As the second daughter in a family of five, Emily’s upbringing followed this pattern.

Her brothers went away to school and two of them went on to Cambridge while the third was articled to a solicitor.

In later life, Emily talked about her resentment at the advantages given to her brothers and the repetitive and limited nature of the home life that she and her sister, Jane, had to endure.

In the 1850’s the duty of caring for sick relatives fell to Emily. She nursed her sister who was suffering from tuberculosis until her death.

She then went to Algiers as companion to her younger brother. It was here that she met the first of several friends who were to have a strong influence on her life. Barbara Bodichon opened her eyes to feminist ideas.

Finally, free of family responsibilities, Emily went to London and encountered other likeminded friends.

Noteworthy amongst those was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was to be the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and a surgeon.

She also met Elizabeth’s sister, Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned for women’s suffrage as a Suffragist and recently became the only woman honoured by a statue in Parliament Square.

Emily too was a Suffragist and campaigned for votes for women through legal means.

There were several men who supported the campaign one of them being the philosopher and Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill.

In 1866 he told the women of the Kensington Society that he would present a suffrage petition to Parliament if they managed to raise a hundred signatures.

They managed 4,999. The story was that Emily and Elizabeth took the petition to Parliament and then concealed it at a fruit stall so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Mill retrieved it from there and duly presented it to Parliament.

Of course, it was voted down for there was to be over 50 years of struggle before partial success was achieved.

Emily decided to devote her own efforts to campaigning for women’s access to higher education.

In 1863, she and other educationists persuaded the Cambridge local examination syndicate to open their examination to girls on an experimental basis.

At short notice, Emily found 83 girls to sit the exam. Many passed and none of them were ‘hysterical or seized with brain fever’.

After this Emily worked hard to achieve her goal of creating a college for women.

Girton College came into existence in 1868 in Hitchin, Hertfordshire and the first intake was just 5 students.

From there it went from strength to strength and by 1873 enough money had been raised to build the Girton College of today on the outskirts of Cambridge.

For two years Emily was resident Mistress of the college but in 1875 she resigned to resume her position on the executive committee.

She remained committed to degrees being awarded to women on the same terms as men.

Her manifesto Women in the Universities of England and Scotland (1896) condemned the attempts to create separate arrangements for women.

Oxford and Cambridge, however, continued to exclude women from their degrees.

Emily must have been gratified when the University of Glasgow conferred an honorary degree on her in 1901. She must also have been pleased to have lived long enough to be able to vote in 1918.

Ally Hayes is a member of Bevois Mount History group and a tour guide with .