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Portrait Highlight - Millicent Fawcett - British feminist & suffragist, political and union leader

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) British feminist and suffragist, intellectual, political and union leader, and writer.

Millicent was born in Aldeburgh to Newson and Louisa Garrett (née Dunnell). She was the eighth child out of ten. The Garretts were by all accounts a close and happy family. As a child Millicent was encouraged to “be physically active, read widely, speak their minds, and share in the political interests of their father, a convert from Conservatism to Gladstonian Liberalism”.

Millicent's elder sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, (who would go on to become Britain's first female doctor), introduced her to Emily Davies, an English suffragist, who, it is reported, said to the Fawcett sisters, "It is quite clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession to women. After these things are done, we must see about getting the vote…You are younger than we are, Millie, so you must attend to that”. In 1865, at the age of 18, she attended a lecture by John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher and political economist. The following year, she Emily Davies supported the Kensington Society by collecting signatures for a petition asking Parliament to enfranchise women householders

It was John Stuart Mill who introduced Millicent to many other women's rights activists, including Henry Fawcett, a Liberal Member of Parliament, whom she would marry on 23rd April 1867.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily Davies, Henry Fawcett

Philippa Fawcett

Henry had actually intended to marry Millicent’s sister Elizabeth before she decided to focus on her medical career, but by all accounts, their marriage was said to be based on "perfect intellectual sympathy”. Henry had been blinded in a shooting accident in 1858 and Millicent acted as his secretary, pursuing a writing career whilst caring for Henry, and running two households, one in Cambridge and one in London. The couple had some radical beliefs in support of proportional representation, individualistic and free trade principles, and opportunities for women. Their only child, Philippa Fawcett, was born in 1868 and, much encouraged by her mother in her studies, went on to become the first woman to obtain top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890. Although having only one of her own children, plus her many interests and duties, Millicent, along with her sister Agnes Garrett, raised four of their cousins, who had been orphaned early in life: Amy Garrett Badley, Fydell Edmund Garrett, Elsie Garrett (later a prominent botanical artist in South Africa), and Elsie's twin, John.

In 1868 Millicent joined the London Suffrage Committee, and the following year spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting held in London. In 1870 she spoke on behalf of the Committee in Brighton. That same year she published her short Political Economy for Beginners, which was "wildly successful", and ran through 10 editions in the following 41 years. In 1872 she and her husband published Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects, containing eight essays by Millicent. During her lifetime Millicent wrote three books, one co-authored with her husband, and many articles, some published posthumously. Her Political Economy for Beginners went into ten editions, sparked two novels, and appeared in many languages. One of her first articles on women's education appeared in Macmillan's Magazine in 1875, the year when her interest in women's education led her to become a founder of Newnham College for Women in Cambridge. There she served on the college council and backed a controversial bid for all women to receive Cambridge degrees. Millicent regularly spoke at girls' schools, women's colleges and adult education centres.

Newham College, Cambridge

After Henry's death in November 1884, Millicent temporarily withdrew from public life. Then in 1885 she began to concentrate on politics and was a key member of what became the Women's Local Government Society. In 1886 she joined the Liberal Unionist party oppose Irish Home Rule as she felt, like other English Protestants, that allowing home rule for Catholic Ireland would hurt England's prosperity and be disastrous for the Irish. After the death of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) leader, Lydia Becker, in 1890, Millicent took the helm and remained in post until 1919. She is famous for having taken a more moderate political position, distancing herself from the militancy and direct actions of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), which she believed harmed women's chances of winning the vote by souring public opinion and alienating Members of Parliament. Despite the publicity for the WSPU, the NUWSS with its slogan "Law-Abiding suffragists" retained more support.

In 1891 a new edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published, with a brand new introduction by Millicent, cited by British-based biographical and former academic writer, Lyndall Gordon as an "influential essay” as it was Millicent’s very own introduction that reasserted the reputation of the early feminist philosopher and claimed her as an early figure in the struggle for the vote.

Emily Hobhouse

The South African War (also known as the Boer War, 11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902) saw Millicent nominated to lead the commission of women sent to South Africa, sailing there in July 1901 with other women to investigate the British welfare campaigner, feminist, and pacifist Emily Hobhouse's indictment of "atrocious conditions in concentration camps where the families of the Boer soldiers were interned". No British women had been entrusted before with such a task in wartime. Millicent fought for the civil rights of the Uitlanders "as the cause of revival of interest in women's suffrage”. Millicent had backed countless campaigns over many years, including those aiming to curb child abuse by raising the age of consent, criminalise incest and cruelty to children within the family, end the practice of excluding women from courtrooms when sexual offences were considered, stamp out the "white slave trade", and prevent child marriage and the introduction of regulated prostitution in India. She also campaigned to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts which subjected women arrested on suspicion of being a prostitute and having passed sexually transmitted diseases onto their clients to invasive and painful examinations. Any woman could be arrested on mere suspicion and imprisoned for refusing consent to these examinations. As the men who infected the women were not subject to the Acts, Millicent upheld that the Acts reflected sexual double standards that she believed would never be erased until women were represented in the public sphere.

Josephine Butler

Under her leadership, the NUWSS continued to grow and by 1905 had 305 constituent societies and almost 50,000 members, compared with the WSPU's 2,000 members in 1913. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the WSPU ceased all activities to focus on the war effort - such was their support for the war, they were labelled jingoistic - and the NUWSS began supporting hospital services in training camps, largely because the organisation was markedly less militant than the WSPU: it contained many more pacifists and support for the war within it was weaker. The NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the war and used the situation to its advantage by pointing out the contribution women had made to the war effort. Millicent held her post until 1919, a year after the first women had been given the vote under the Representation of the People Act 1918, after which she left the suffrage campaign and devoted much time to writing books, including a biography of the 19th century feminist and social reformer, Josephine Butler.

Millicent died in 1929 at her London home in Gower Street (now identified by a blue plaque). Her ashes were scattered at the Golders Green Crematorium. In 1932, a memorial to Millicent, alongside that of her husband, was unveiled in Westminster Abbey with an inscription that reads: "A wise constant and courageous Englishwoman. She won citizenship for women.”

In 2018, 100 years after the passing of the Representation of the People Act, for which Millicent had successfully campaigned and which granted limited franchise, she became the first woman commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, by the sculptor Gillian Wearing. This followed a campaign led by Caroline Criado Perez, in which over 84,000 online signatures were garnered. Millicent's statue holds a banner quoting from a speech she gave in 1920, after Emily Davison's death during the 1913 Epsom Derby: "Courage calls to courage everywhere”.

The archives of Millicent Fawcett are held at The Women's Library, London School of Economics, which in 2018 renamed one of its campus buildings Fawcett House, after her role in the British suffrage movement and connections to the area. That same year, Millicent was announced as winner of a BBC Radio 4 poll for the most influential woman of the past 100 years.


Millicent Fawcett, pen on paper (2021)


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