Millicent Garrett Fawcett (Feminist)

Millicent Fawcett 2Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, GBE (11 June 1847 – 5 August 1929) was an English suffragist (one who campaigned for women to have the vote) and an early feminist.

She was born Millicent Garrett in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

As a suffragist, as opposed to a suffragette, she took a moderate line, but was a tireless campaigner.

She concentrated much of her energy on the struggle to improve women's opportunities for higher education and in 1871 co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge.

She later became president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (the NUWSS), a position she held from 1890 until 1919. In July 1901 she was appointed to lead the British Government's commission to South Africa to investigate conditions in the concentration camps that had been created there in the wake of the Second Boer War. Her report corroborated what the campaigner Emily Hobhouse had said about conditions in the camps.

Millicent Garrett was the daughter of Newson Garrett, a warehouse owner, and his wife Louise Dunnell. Newson and Louise had six daughters and four sons, including Millicent and Elizabeth, later famous as the first woman in the United Kingdom to qualify as a doctor. Newson's business quickly became a success, and all of his children were educated at a private boarding school in Blackheath, London run by Louisa Browning, the aunt of Robert Browning.

Millicent was sent there in 1858, and left in 1863 with "a sharpened interest in literature and the arts and a passion for self-education". Her sister Louise took her to the sermons of Frederick Maurice, who was a more socially aware and less traditional Anglican and whose opinion influenced Millicent's view of religion. When she was twelve her sister Elizabeth moved to London to qualify as a doctor, and Millicent regularly visited her there.

These visits were the start of Millicent's interest in women's rights. In 1865 Elizabeth took her to see a speech by John Stuart Mill on the subject; Millicent was impressed by this speech, and became an active supporter of his work. In 1866, at the age of 19, she became secretary of the London Society for Women's Suffrage. 

Mill introduced her to many other women's rights activists, including Henry Fawcett, a liberal Member of Parliament who had originally intended to marry Elizabeth before she decided to focus on her medical career. Millicent and the politician became close friends, and despite a fourteen-year age gap they married in 1867.

Millicent took his last name, becoming Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The MP had been blinded in a shooting accident in 1858, and Millicent acted as his secretary.The marriage was described as one based on "perfect intellectual sympathy",and Millicent pursued a writing career of her own while caring for him. Their only child, Philippa Fawcett, was born in 1868.

In 1868 Millicent joined the London Suffrage Committee, and in 1869 she spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting to be held in London. In March 1870 she spoke in Brighton, her husband's constituency, and as a speaker was known for her clear speaking voice. In 1870 she published Political Economy for Beginners, which although short was "wildly successful", and ran through 10 editions in 41 years.

In 1872 she and her husband published Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects, which contained eight essays by Millicent. In 1875 she was a co-founder of Newnham Hall, and served on its Council.

The death of her husband on 6 November 1884 made Millicent temporarily withdraw from public life. She sold both family homes and moved with Philippa into the house of Agnes Garrett, her sister. She resumed work in 1885. Millicent began to concentrate on politics. Originally an active Liberal, she joined the Liberal Unionist party in 1886 in opposition to Irish Home Rule. In 1904 she resigned from the party on the issue of Free Trade when Joseph Chamberlain gained control in his campaign for Tariff Reform.

After the death of Lydia Becker, she became the leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the main suffragist organisation in Britain. She held this post until 1919, a year after the first women had been granted the vote. After that, she left the suffrage campaign for the most part, and devoted much of her time to writing books, including a biography of Josephine Butler.

She was granted an honorary LLD by St. Andrew's University in 1905, awarded a damehood (GBE) in 1925, and died four years later, in 1929. Her memory is preserved now in the name of the Fawcett Society, and in Millicent Fawcett Hall, constructed in 1929 in Westminster as a place that women could use to debate and discuss the issues that affected them. The hall is currently owned by Westminster School and is the location of its drama department, incorporating a 150-seat studio theatre.

Millicent Fawcett (leader of NUWSS) was a moderate campaigner, distancing herself from the militant and violent activities of the Pankhursts and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). She believed that their actions were in fact harming women's chances of gaining the vote, as they were alienating the MPs who were debating whether or not to give women the vote, as well as souring much of the general public towards the campaign. Despite the publicity given to the WSPU, the NUWSS (one of whose slogans was "Law-Abiding suffragists") retained the majority of the support of the women's movement. In 1913 they had 50,000 members compared to 2,000 of the WSPU.

Fawcett also campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which reflected sexual double standards. The Acts required that prostitutes be examined for sexually transmitted diseases, and if they were found to have passed any on to their customers, they were imprisoned.

Poor women could be arrested on suspicion of being a prostitute, and could also be imprisoned for refusing consent to the examination, which was invasive and could be painful. The prostitutes' infectious male customers were not subject to the Acts. The Acts were eventually repealed as a result of Fawcett's and others' campaigning.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, while the WSPU ceased all of their activities to focus on the war effort, Fawcett's NUWSS did not. This was largely because as the organisation was significantly less militant than the WSPU, it contained many more pacifists, and general support for the war within the organisation was weaker. The WSPU, in comparison, was called jingoistic as a result of its leaders' strong support for the war.

While Fawcett was not a pacifist, she risked dividing the organisation if she ordered a halt to the campaign, and the diverting of NUWSS funds from the government, as the WSPU had done. The NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the war, and used the situation to their advantage by pointing out the contribution women had made to the war effort in their campaigns.

Fawcett is considered instrumental in gaining the vote for six million British women over 30-years-old gaining the vote in 1918.


Related Articles