On-the-go History: Millicent Fawcett and the women’s suffrage movement

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is to get a statue outside parliament, the first woman to do so. Her achievements and documentations of the women’s suffrage period in the 19th and 20th centuries were compelling. The role she played in the suffragist movement were exemplary and monumental, but the eloquence in which she wrote about the history of the movement is perhaps what stands her out from the rest. Millicent Fawcett would be as proud of this achievement for the fight for equality as the many she saw and fought for throughout her life.

There have been many great women throughout history and the women’s suffrage movement had them in abundance. Nonetheless, Millicent Fawcett stands out from her peers and this statue will represent further progress in the continued fight for gender equality.

Early life and inspiration

Born to a family of Ironworkers, Fawcett’s father owned a pawnbroker in Whitechapel but they eventually moved after her uncle inherited her grandfather’s engineering works, Richard Garrett and Sons. She grew up in Suffolk, where the engineering works was based, then when she was 12, Millicent was sent to London with her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (first female doctor in Britain), to be educated at a Miss Browning’s private school in Blackheath, this is where she was inspired by MP John Stuart Mill, an early advocate of women’s suffrage.

She spent much of her time in London and met radical MP John Stuart Mill, whom she admired for is practical utilitarianism support of women’s rights rather than abstract principles, along with her eventual husband, Liberal MP, reformer, and professor of economics at Cambridge University, Henry Fawcett. Throughout her life she became a key figure in women’s suffrage even though her primary focus was improving women’s education opportunities and in 1871 co-founded Newham College in Cambridge.

Tireless and passionate

Millicent was a tireless campaigner who took a moderate line to women’s suffrage, also juggled being a writer, political secretary and a supportive wife after Henry was blinded in a shooting accident. Millicent was a radical who flirted with republicanism, supported proportional representation, trade unionism, keenly advocated individualistic and free trade principles. She was long overshadowed by her more militant contemporaries in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU).

She was against the militant activity but provoked the idea that the violence towards women’s rights campaigners was far worse than any ‘militant’ activity by a minority of suffragists. During which time, minor breaches of law such as flag waving were treated with more severity than worse crimes committed by men (Garrett Fawcett, 1912). She also highlighted the turning of the hose upon a suffrage prisoner on a midwinters night and the force feeding of prisoners who were on hunger strikes as turning points in the fight for women’s suffrage.

She continued to fight for women’s suffrage throughout and supported W.T. Stead’s expose of the slave trade. She was a moral advocate of the Contagious Diseases Act and supported in the 1870s, supported the several Reform Bills that when through the Commons, despite the failed attempts of adding Women’s Suffrage Amendments, progress was slowly being made. Millicent was such a prominence figure in British political life, she was asked to conduct an official report on the use of concentration camps during the Boer War after Emily Hobhouse’s damning unofficial report. She produced a balanced and detailed report to parliament confirming the conclusion’s from Hobhouse’s report.

Women’s suffrage united

In the 1890s, she began to unite the women’s suffrage movements across the country and in 1897 became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the umbrella corporation that linked every suffrage society across the country. Through this she continued to fight behind the scenes during World War I, pushing for reforms in parliament after the war. However, did agree to suspend campaigning efforts to assist the wartime effort, she was convinced that the role played by women during the war would assist the suffrage effort.

Her faith was repaid when in 1919, the passage of the Representation of People Act 1918 had given the vote to women over 30, after which she resigned from her position as president of the NUWSS but continued to work with and support during campaigns to lower the voting age of women from 30 to 21. She died in 1929 aged 82, a year after the voting age for women was lowered to 21 in 1928. Despite her strong willed public image, she always had private doubts whether women would be enfranchised during her lifetime.

SELRES_e152db99-33cb-404c-82fe-a56ccb6b662dSELRES_82fe5509-77a1-4b5c-ad9c-f21de416de9cSELRES_3f6307df-ddea-4fcf-8fa2-421ff24439f8PreSELRES_3f6307df-ddea-4fcf-8fa2-421ff24439f8SELRES_82fe5509-77a1-4b5c-ad9c-f21de416de9cSELRES_e152db99-33cb-404c-82fe-a56ccb6b662d-20th brief history of the Women’s suffrage movement

In the 19th century reformers were beginning to become more prominent in the House of Commons but with every election their impatience grew. It was often case that candidates would pledge a Reform Bill but year after year nothing was done. Each party had brought forward Reform Bills however, nothing was done because neither party really wished to enfranchise the working classes. John Stuart Mill came forward and began to really push for a Reform Bill and with the help of Millicent Fawcett, they campaigned for women’s suffrage. But early attempts saw amendments to the bills for women’s suffrage defeated at the first attempt.

Ground was slowly being made with these attempts because it was slowly capturing the public’s imagination and inspiring other women to get involved. John Bright was a defiantly against the idea of women’s suffrages and one of the more vocal opposition voices but in 1867, John Stuart Mill gave a speech in the Commons, described as “masterly” by Fawcett, and convinced Bright to vote with him on the Reform Bill. This was carried but on May 20th, the Women’s Suffrage Amendment was defeated and this was the only time that Bright voted with Mill.

In 1886, after a heavy defeat of another Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the Reform Bill two years earlier, the Women’s Liberal foundation was founded. In 1892, Samuel Smith MP feared the idea that women should vote and sent out a whip signed by 20 members of parliament, 10 each from either side “earnestly beseeching members” to be in their place when the Women’s Suffrage Bill came on and vote against it. This division was the last time that it would be defeated in parliament as straight issue, as in 1897 another bill was put forward and was carried on second reading by 228 votes 157.

The struggle was made harder by the anti-suffragist press and they acted on the assumption that if they say nothing about a political event, then such event didn’t take place. In other words, they would highlight or give prominence to any story or event that would be harmful to the suffrage movement. They would actively avoid the facts about its growing force and volume or record them in a manner that escaped the reader. This resulted in only suffragists who were in contact with other comrades around the world and have their own papers would be able to keep up with the latest information of what has happened and what is likely to happen.

Sources:

Garrettt Fawcett, M. (1912). Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of A Great Movement. London: The Dodge Publishing Co. .
Rappaport, H. (2001). Millicent Garrettt Fawcett. In Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. London: ABC-CLIO.
Strachey, R. (1931). Millicent Garrettt Fawcett. London: John Murray.

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