Glimpses of Girton: Advancing Towards 1918

100 years ago today – 6 February 1918 – the Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women rate-payers over the age of 30.  The same Act gave the vote to all men over the age of 21 and it was another ten years before the passing of the Equal Franchise Act finally gave women the same voting rights as men.

The campaign for women's suffrage is writ large at Girton – from the suffrage posters on display in the Lawrence Room…



Presented by Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern (right) and Professor Liz Stanley (left), and previously owned by Joyce Evans, who had been a member of the Women's Freedom League.

Girton College Archive reference: GCRF 8/1/9 (

to the Library's Blackburn Collection…



The Blackburn Collection was bequeathed to the College by Helen Blackburn in 1903. The collection was formed by her in memory of Lydia Becker and Caroline Ashurst Biggs and consists of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspaper cuttings which relate to the worldwide position of women during the nineteenth century.

Each book contains the bookplate shown here, designed by Edith Mendham and printed by the Women's Printing Society.




… to the papers of the suffragists such as Nellie Crocker[1], Agnes Lake[2], Beatrice and Edith Clayton Pepper[3], and Marilyn Wallace-Dunlop[4] in the Archive, the reports of the activities of both the Women's Suffrage Society and the Anti-Suffrage League in the Girton Review, and elsewhere within the College's walls and collective memory.

The earliest history of the College is entwined with that of the suffrage movement. Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon had met in Algiers in 1858.  Barbara was already by that time an active promoter of women's rights and Emily threw herself into the cause when her family moved to London two years later.  Both were instrumental in the 1866 petition to Parliament [link].  But even in the year before that petition, Emily had written "I don't see much use in talking about the Franchise till first principles have made more way. The scoffers don't seen how much is involved in improved education…"[5] and gradually devoted her energies to women's education. Finally retiring from Girton in 1904, at the age of 74, she returned to the issue of suffrage although she remained opposed to the militancy of the suffragettes.

One letter held in the College Archive perhaps encapsulates the link between Emily Davies and women's suffrage.  It is a letter to Emily Davies from the Organisation Committee of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, dated 19 June 1917 – the day that the bill was passed in the House of Commons.


Resolution from the Organisation Committee of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, 19 June 1917 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/46 (

The Archive also contains the draft of Emily's reply, dated 26 September that same year, in which she modestly thanks the Committee for their appreciation of the small share she had been able to take in "our great campaign" [6].

Emily Davies voted for the first time in the General Election of 1918. In her memoir, Family Chronicle, written 13 years earlier, she had recalled a prophecy made by Barbara Bodichon in 1865 that Emily would be voting on crutches and Barbara would rise from her grave to vote in her winding sheet [7].  In that, she was at least partly correct.


Further reading:

Bennett, Daphne. Emily Davies and the liberation of women, 1830-1921. London : Andre Deutsch, 1990.

Crawford, Elizabeth.  The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866-1928. London : UCL Press, 1999.

Davies, Emily. Collected letters, 1861-1875, edited by Ann B. Murphy and Deirdre Raftery. (Victorian literature and culture series). Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Herstein, Sheila R. A mid-Victorian feminist, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1985.

Hirsch, Pam.  Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891: feminist, artist, rebel. London : Chatto & Windus, 1998.

Lacey, Candida Ann (ed). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group. (Women's source library). New York : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Living heritage: women and the vote.


Published: 06 February 2018

[5] Extract of a letter from Emily Davies to Henry Tomkinson, 10 November 1865 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 8/126 (

[6] Extract of a draft letter from Emily Davies to the Organising Committee of the London Society for Women's Suffrage, 26 September 1917 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/47 (

[7] Family Chronicle, An account of family and other matters written by Davies for her nephew Theodore in 1905 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 1/1 (