One of the most wonderful evenings of my life was the celebration party in Gateshead after the first ordinations of women in the Diocese of Durham, on 28 May 1994. It was a delightful night with three of the recently ordained female priests, the Gateshead Women May Band, the Tyneside Suffragette banner, great food and friends. A further joy was knowing how much this would have pleased a former clergy daughter of the parish of Gateshead, one Emily Davies. Surrounded as it seemed by a great communion of saints who had ‘made the track’, Emily’s spirit shone around us, not least in the new priest Penny Jones, a former student of Girton College, Cambridge.
It would be hard to estimate the impact of Emily Davies (1830-1921) on the lives of women who benefited from her educational work: finding confidence, refining their intelligence and building their skills and networks. For Emily is best known for her campaigning to open university education to women and her foundation of Girton College, the first women’s college in Britain. This built on earlier work with the London School Board, successfully achieving the admission of girls to secondary school examinations. It was a hard struggle. Indeed, only in 1948, was Girton College allowed to grant full Cambridge University degrees to women. Yet the difference Emily wrought was immense.
It is often forgotten that Emily was also so much to the fore in the suffrage struggle, despite the demands of forging the educational track. A member of the Langham Place Circle of educated liberal women, Emily saw all such issues as interconnected. My favourite story of her is indeed connected with the very first stages of British women’s struggle for the vote. For in 1866, the British women’s suffrage campaign was instigated by a petition of almost 1 500 signatures. Emily, and Elizabeth Garret, were chosen to take the scroll to parliament for John Stuart Mill to present. The gathering of lawyers around Westminster Hall at that time intimidated her however. Consequently, to avoid merciless witticisms, they asked a seller of apples to hide their document under her stall. As Roger Fulford observed, what a delicious irony:
the petition – the battering-ram with which these spirited ladies hoped to overturn the defences of the male sex – lying among those fruits by which man, through the guile of a woman, was supposed to have damned himself. (Votes for Women, p.43)
Child of Gateshead, mother of women’s education, persistent feminist, I salute you!
God of wisdom,
we give thanks for Emily Davies
and all pioneers of women’s education.
Help us appreciate the incredible gift of learning opportunities
and their immense impact on the health and livelihood of women.
Grant us the will to extend such life chances to others,
particularly to the poor of the world,
that they may thereby lift others into greater peace and well-being.
In the power of the Holy Spirit which leads us into all truth, Amen.