Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The second of my suffragists is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a pioneer of the campaign before the WSPU was even a twinkle in Emmeline Pankhurst’s eye.
A few weeks ago, my sister and I were having a conversation about Millicent Garrett Fawcett being the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square. When our Dad, a man with quite high levels of general knowledge, responded to the conversation by asking “who?”, I knew who my next Turbulent Londoner was going to be. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a writer and campaigner, and was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for more than two decades.
Millicent Garrett was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on the 11th of June 1847, the eighth of ten children. The family was close and prosperous, and Millicent’s childhood was happy. The children were encouraged to read, speak their minds, and take an interest in politics. At the age of 12, Millicent was sent to school in Blackheath with her sister Elizabeth. Her older sisters introduced her to radical ideas and thinkers. In 1866, Millicent went to hear a speech given by John Stuart Mill, an early supporter of women’s suffrage. His words helped her decide to take action. That same year, at the age of 19, she became the Secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Through her new political connections Millicent soon met Henry Fawcett, the radical Liberal MP for Brighton. Despite the 14-year age gap they were married in 1867, and had their first and only child, Philippa, in April 1868. The couple were politically well matched, and it seems that they had a happy and loving marriage.
Henry was blinded in a shooting accident in 1858, so Millicent acted as his Secretary, alongside her activism and a successful writing career. In 1868, she joined the London Suffrage Committee, and spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting. It was unusual for women to speak in the public at the time, and Millicent got very nervous before making a speech. Despite this, she was known for her clear speaking voice, and her ability to explain complex arguments simply. In 1870, Millicent published Political Economy for Beginners. It was very successful, going through 10 editions in 41 years. Along with her sister Agnes, Millicent also raised 4 of her cousins whose parents had died.
Millicent was a strong supporter of women’s education. In 1875, she co-founded Newnham College, one of the first Cambridge Colleges for women. She also supported a controversial campaign for women to actually receive degrees from the University of Cambridge, rather than just being able to study there. This wasn’t achieved until 1948.
Henry died unexpectedly in November 1884, leaving Millicent a widow at the age of 38. She sold the family homes in Cambridge and London, and took Philippa to live with Agnes. When she re-entered public life in 1885, Millicent began to concentrate on politics. She was a key member of what became the Women’s Local Government Society–a cross party group that campaigned for women to be allowed to stand as local councillors. This goal was achieved in 1907.
After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Millicent became the Chair of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed as an umbrella organisation for all the suffrage societies in the country. Millicent became President of this new group, a role she kept until 1919. Although the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) frequently commanded the headlines and publicity, the NUWSS consistently had the majority of the support of the women’s movement. By 1905, the NUWSS had 305 constituent societies and 50,000 members. Millicent disapproved of militant tactics, believing that they alienated politicians and the general public. Despite this, she admired the courage of militant activists.
In July 1901, Millicent was asked to lead a commission of women to South Africa to investigate allegations that the families of Boer soldiers were being held in awful conditions in concentrations camps during the Boer War. It was the first time British women were trusted with such a responsibility in war time.
The NUWSS lost patience with the Liberal Party in early 1912, giving up the long-held hope that they would eventually give women the vote. Instead, they formed an electoral alliance with the Labour Party, which was the only political party that supported women’s suffrage. By 1913, the NUWSS had 100000 members, and organised the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate how many women wanted the vote. On the 18th of June, NUWSS members from all over the country set off for London, meeting in Hyde Park six weeks later on the 29th of July. Now aged 66, Millicent took an active part in the pilgrimage, and was the headline speaker at the Hyde Park rally.
Millicent was a not a pacifist, but the NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the First World War, unlike the WSPU. It will never be possible to find out whether the NUWSS or the WSPU’s campaigning methods were more effective for winning women the right to vote. There is no doubt, however, that Millicent Garrett Fawcett played a huge role in winning that right. After the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, Millicent largely withdrew from the suffrage campaign. Throughout her long career, however, she had supported a large number of campaigns, not all of which were successful. These included: raising the age of sexual consent; criminalising incest; preventing child marriage; repealing the Contagious Diseases Act; and Clementina Black’s campaign to help protect low-paid female workers.
Her hard work and dedication were recognised in 1925, when she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. She passed away four years later on the 5th of August 1929. In 1953, the London’s Society for Women’s Suffrage was renamed the Fawcett Society in her honour. The Society continues to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. In 2017, it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, which is due to be unveiled in February 2018.
After Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett is perhaps one of the best-known suffragists. But that doesn’t mean she is well-known. Despite having a charity named after and a statue in Parliament Square planned to honour her, most people don’t seem to recognise her name, let alone are aware of what she achieved. I think that’s a real shame.
Sources and Further Reading
Biography Online. “Millicent Fawcett.” No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/uk/millicent-fawcett.html
Fawcett Society. “About.” No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/about
Murray, Jenni. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2017.
Simkin, John. “Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WfawcettM.htm
Simkin, John. “Women’s Pilgrimage.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm
Sutherland, Gillian. “History of Newnham.” Newnham College, University of Cambridge. No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/
Wikipedia. “Millicent Fawcett.” Last modified 28 January 2018, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millicent_Fawcett
Women’s Local Government Society. “Women’s Local Government Society.” Suffrage Pioneers. No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at http://www.suffrage-pioneers.net/wlgs/