Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929)
“I am far from claiming that we actually accomplished the difficult feat of doing what was right, but I believe we tried to“
Millicent Garret Fawcett (1847-1929) was the most influential leader of the moderate women’s suffrage movement in Britain from the 1860s to the 1920s. As the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which was formed in England in 1897 she played a key role in gaining the right to vote for women in England during a time when there was an almost unanimous male opposition to female suffrage.
Born in June 1847 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England, Fawcett was the seventh of ten children in a wealthy, upper-class family. She had four brothers and five sisters. Her father was Newson Garret, a ship owner and political radical. At twelve years old she, along with her sister, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, who became later the first female doctor in the United Kingdom, was sent to London to attend a private boarding school in Blackheath.
Her interest and work in the women’s suffrage movement began already 1866. When she was nineteen years old, she went to hear a speech by John Stuart Mill, a liberal member of the British Parliament at the time and an early advocate for universal women’s suffrage. His speech on equal rights for women inspired Fawcett to become actively involved in his campaign. Her involvement with his campaign combined with watching her older sister struggle to be employed as a female doctor inspired her to support and become involved in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1866, when she was nineteen years old, she became secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, an early group that campaigned for women’s suffrage.
In April 1867, when Millicent Garret Fawcett was twenty years old, she married Henry Fawcett, a radical politician, member of parliament, and a political economy professor at Cambridge. The couple had one daughter. She met him through her work with John Stuart Mill’s campaign. He was also 14 years older than she. She worked as his secretary while pursuing her own writing career. During this time, she wrote a book, Political Economy for Beginners. The book was well received and ran for forty-one years and ten editions. Henry Fawcett was blind and Millicent helped him overcome this handicap. He was also supportive of her work for women’s rights, which began with her first speech on the subject of women’s suffrage in 1868 when she was just twenty-one years old.
Millicent Fawcett was also a supporter of women’s education at Cambridge university. She and her husband played a key role in founding Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the first English colleges for women. The meetings for planning the college were often held in the couple’s drawing room. The planning for the college began in 1869 and was established two years later. Her daughter, Phillipa Fawcett, would later attend this college. In 1937, the college named its newest building after Fawcett. In 1884, Henry Fawcett became ill and died of pneumonia, leaving Millicent Fawcett a widow at the age of 38.
After her husband died, Fawcett devoted her life to political activism and campaigning for women’s suffrage. She played a major role in the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.The NUWSS formed in 1897 when the many suffrage societies that had formed in Britain united into one group. This movement was primarily made up of middle- and upper-class women but did include some women from the working-class too. Women working in textiles, sweated labor, and mines supported the NUWSS, which involved thousands of women in its campaign for the right to vote. Fawcett became the first president of the organization in 1890 and held the position until 1919. Under her leadership, the NUWSS became the leading moderate women’s suffrage organization in Britain.
In 1903, the NUWSS split over the questions of the best strategy to achieve women’s suffrage. A minority supported a more militant strategy to achieve women’s suffrage. They founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and soon started with their militant activism. Millicent Fawcett and the leaders of the NUWSS remained peaceful in their attempts to gain the right to vote for women. They did not approve of the militancy of the WSPU and favored legal, democratic strategies of achieving her political goals, like petitions, publications, meetings and demonstrations
In addition to campaigning for the right of women to vote, Fawcett also spent time campaigning for the repeal of the British Contagious Diseases Acts of 1964, 1866 and 1869. This legislation allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. British feminists believed that these acts reflected a sexual double standard and fought for year against these discriminatory laws.
After World War I started, Millicent Fawcett urged the NUWSS to support the conflict, similar to the middle-and upper-class women’s organization of the other European countries. She believed that women should provide all of the aid they could to the war effort in order to gain the respect of their male compatriots and convince them of women’s eligibility to vote. She continued her campaign for women’s suffrage throughout World War I, and in 1918, The Representation of the People Act was passed and enfranchised women over the age of thirty who owned property or were married to property owners. This included about six million women. Ten years after this, all British women over the age of twenty-one received the vote on a basis of full equality with men.
In 1919, Millicent Garret Fawcett retired from active leadership in the NUWSS, which had been renamed the National Union for Equal Citizenship. Some of Fawcett’s political writings include Political Economy for Beginners (1870), the novel Janet Doncaster (1875), The Women’s Victory – and after, What I remember (1920), and Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (1924). She died in 1929 at her home in London. Her memory is preserved in the name of the Fawcett Society, and in the Millicent Fawcett Hall, constructed in 1929 in Westminster as a place that women could use to debate and discuss the issues that affected them.
Millicent Garret Fawcett is still important today because she was a key player in gaining the right to vote for women. She dedicated her life to gaining this right and without women like her, women today may not have the same rights we do. It is important to study women like her to understand the situation of women today and how we got here. A history shows us, just because rights exist now, it doesn’t mean they always will. Studying Fawcett and women like her is essential because their work still isn’t finished and is something women today must and do continue.
Bailey Aldridge, Journalism and Political Science major, Women’s and Gender Studies Minor, Class of 2019.
Literature and Website
- “Biographies Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Newham College University of Cambridge, at: http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/biographies/ (Accessed 9 April, 2018).
- “Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Millicent-Fawcett (Accessed 9 April, 2018).
- “Millicent Fawcett.” Biography Online at: https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/uk/millicent-fawcett.html (Accessed 9 April, 2018).
- Allen, Taylor Ann. “Women and the First World War, 1914-1918.” Women in Twentieth-Century Europe, 6-20. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007.
- Fuchs, Rachel G. and Thompson, Victoria E. Women in Nineteenth Century Europe,162-176. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Fawcett, Millicent, “To the Members of the National Union,The Common Cause, 7, August, 1914.” In Women, The Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, ed. Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, 260-261. Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1983.