Millicent Fawcett – thanks for the vote

As it’s election day in the UK, it seems fitting to write about one of the women who helped gain British women the vote. I’m ignoring the usual subjects – the Pankhursts and Emily Davison – not because I don’t admire them but because one glance at Facebook this morning tells me that everyone knows them already. But the suffragettes, or Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were only a small, extreme part of a wider movement. Many historians have argued that the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), known as suffragists, were ultimately more persuasive in gaining women the vote. Their leader was one of the unsung heroes of the feminist movement – Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett was born in Suffolk in 1846 to a progressive, middle class family, and together with her older sister Elizabeth Garrett, received a boarding school education in London. Elizabeth later became the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor. When Millicent was 19, she heard a speech by John Stuart Mill in favour of equal rights for women. It made such an impression on her that she became his loyal supporter and sought out fellow activists, including Henry Fawcett, an MP fourteen years her senior, whom she married. Henry had been blinded in a shooting accident and had been expected to marry Millicent’s sister, but Elizabeth was too devoted to the study of medicine to marry.

Millicent immersed herself into the world of politics, writing a book on political economy and becoming a popular speaker, even though the act of public speaking made her so nervous she was often physically sick. She also helped in the founding of Newnham College, the second Cambridge college to admit women. In 1884 her husband died of pleurisy, leaving her, at 38, a widow with a young daughter. She threw herself into political work, becoming involved with the Personal Rights association, which exposed men who preyed on vulnerable women. In 1886, when discovering that an army major had been harassing a friend’s servant, Millicent threw flour over him and pinned a paper on his back, drawing his actions to others, including the woman to whom he was engaged; she subsequently dumped him. In 1890 she was elected president of the NUWSS. As well as campaigning for equal rights for women, the organisation formed a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war.

In the years 1901-14, when the Liberal government refused to consider giving women the vote, the Suffragettes grabbed all the headlines. Millicent didn’t believe that theirs was the right direction to take; she believed that the violent actions of the WSPU were not only alienating supporters but also preventing the government from voting on the issue as they would be seen to be giving way to extreme tactics. By 1914, the women’s movement was divided. While the militant WSPU were supporting the war and encouraging young men to enlist, the NUWSS were pacifists. However, Millicent supported the war, causing other NUWSS members to resign.

In 1918, women aged thirty or over gained the vote, and the NUWSS was disbanded. From then onwards, Millicent’s work was less high profile. She became active in other areas of women’s equality, including education for Indian women and enabling female students at Cambridge to be awarded degrees. In 1928, she realised her ultimate dream when the voting age for women became equal to that of men. She wrote in her diary: ‘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.’ Her life’s work complete, she died the following year.

So when you cast your vote today, think of the women who chained themselves to railings for the cause, but also remember the woman whose long years of rational, constitutional campaigning played a key role in enfranchising women.

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