Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)
Daphne Bennett has rewritten, in this book on Emily Davies, the history of the feminist movement. She seethes when she hears people talk about the movement as though it began with the suffragettes, for her heroine had been working for the emancipation of women for 50 years before the suffragettes were making themselves noticed in no uncertain manner.
Emily Davies was one of the great pioneers in the cause of women but little is, or has been, really known about her. She has often been confused with Emily Davison who threw herself under the feet of the King's horse, but Emily Davies was not one for such histrionics; her work was done quietly and yet with considerable force. She began as the daughter of a clergyman and, after his death, looked set to live the next few years as that stereotype of the unmarried Victorian lady who looked after her widowed mother. She had been sheltered from the evils of the world by her family, but she wanted to know how the rest of the world lived. She went into nearby Gateshead and learned what life was really like, particularly for the poor and more particularly for the females. Before she was in her teens she was quite familiar with the Gateshead slums, with the dirt, disease and the consequences of drunkenness. Amongst these poor deprived 'friends' the seeds of her future work were sown.
With no formal education behind her she began to work for that part of Victorian society which was oppressed, undervalued and uneducated. She saw how girls were sacrificed for their brothers; indeed, how subservient her own mother was to her father. She saw the desperate need for girls to be educated but even their own families were against this. Mothers really believed that 'book learning makes a girl unmanageable', that it took women away from their proper duties of looking after husband, home and family. She set up an investigation into girls' schools on her own and was horrified by what she saw - Dickens' Dotheboys Hall was not as great an exaggeration as we might feel, and yet Emily was looking into schools for the 'gentler sex'.