MILLICENT GARRETT FAWCETT

 
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Millicent Garrett Fawcett was born in Suffolk in 1846 to a prosperous middle-class family. Being educated in London gave Millicent a keen interest in literature and education, which lasted throughout her life. A pivotal moment occurred when she was 19 and went to hear a speech by the radical MP, John Stuart Mill. Mill was an early advocate of universal women’s suffrage. His speech on equal rights for women made a big impression on Millicent, and she became actively involved in his campaign. She was impressed by Mills practical support for women’s rights on the basis of utilitarianism – rather than abstract principles. Millicent was also moved to support the women’s suffrage movement when her sister Elizabeth struggled to be employed as a doctor. Millicent later wrote:
‘I cannot say I became a suffragist’, she later wrote. ‘I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government’

She wrote a short book ‘Political Economy for Beginners‘. It received praise for its succinct and direct explanation; it ran for ten editions and 41 years. Her capacity to simplify complex arguments proved useful in her career as a suffragist. She also had a clear voice and made a good speaker.
“She became well known as a speaker and lecturer—on political and academic subjects as well as women’s issues—in the 1870s, when women rarely ventured into the public sphere.

Millicent also played a role in the founding of Newnham College, Cambridge. The Fawcetts’ Cambridge drawing room was a key meeting place for the supporters of women’s education in Cambridge, and Millicent herself gave help and shrewd advice in the early planning and growth of Newnham College


After her husband’s death, she devoted more of her time to political campaigning and became involved in the Personal Rights Association. This was a group dedicated to protecting vulnerable women. In 1890, she was elected President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) which was the largest group campaigning for women to receive the vote. This organisation campaigned mainly on equal rights for women, but under Fawcett also supported other causes such as the abolition of the slave trade, and forming a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war.


A big disappointment for the women’s suffrage movement was when the Liberal government refused to countenance giving women the vote in their period in office 1901-1914. This encouraged the more militant suffragettes to engage in direct action – breaking windows and, when sent to jail, taking part in hunger strikes. This willingness to resort to violence caused a deep divide in the women’s movement. Fawcett and the NUWSS remained committed to achieving the vote through constitutional means and argued that militancy was counter-productive. Although Fawcett admired the courage of the more militant WPSU members, she blamed the WPSU’s direct action for preventing the government voting on the issue. In 1912, fed up with the Liberal’s opposition to giving women the vote, the NUWSS supported the nascent Labour Party.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Fawcett faced a divided movement. The militant WSPU enthusiastically supported the war, and Emily Pankhurst helped to encourage young men to join. However, many in the NUWSS were pacifists or supportive of international treaties to bring about peace negotiations. However, Fawcett supported the war. Writing in August 1914:
‘Women, your country needs you. As long as there was any hope for peace, most members of the National Union probably sought for peace, and endeavoured to support those who were trying to maintain it. But we have another duty now.. Let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim to it be recognized or not’. – Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS writing in The Common Cause August 1914.


Her support led to many members of the NUWSS leaving the movement with a substantial degree of acrimony. However, the First World War changed the social and political landscape. With women actively working in industry to support the war effort, there was a groundswell of opinion to give women the vote. In 1918, the ‘Qualification of Women Act’ was passed – giving women over the age of 30 the vote.


The NUWSS was disbanded and shortly after Millicent retired from active engagement in politics. She later wrote a book about the struggles for the vote The Women’s Victory (1920). She was also still active in a less prominent way on issues such as education for Indian women, allowing women to get degrees from Cambridge and creating greater equality of opportunity for women.


When parliament equalised the voting age in 1928, she was there in Parliament to witness the fruits of her life’s work become a reality. She wrote:
“It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.”


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