Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Millicent Garrett Fawcett: "I Cannot Say I Became a Suffragist. . . . I Was Always One"

Millicent Garrett Fawcett (born 11 June 1847)


Two days ago I posted about Elizabeth Garrett--Millicent Garrett is yet another of the "pioneering" Garrett sisters.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, c. 1880
More than a decade younger than Elizabeth Garrett, Millicent's interests the social, economic, educational, and political status of women were sparked when she was visiting her older sister in London in 1865, and the two heard John Stuart Mill speak on the the topic of women's rights. Through Mill, she met Henry Fawcett, a liberal politician and member of Parliament, whom she married in 1865. She gave birth to a daughter, Philippa, in 1868.

In the same year, Millicent Garrett Fawcett became involved with the suffrage movement, joining the London Suffrage Committee. She also became a well-regarded speaker on women's issues. In addition to speaking, she began to write. Her Political Economy for Beginners, published in 1870, was especially popular, with ten editions produced over the course of the next forty years. Two years later, she co-authored and published Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects with her husband. 

Her activism supported improvements for women's educational opportunities as well. She was instrumental in helping to found Newnham College, at Cambridge. Following a series of "Lectures for Ladies" in 1870, the college had begun with five students in a house on Regent Street (Cambridge) in 1871. By 1875, after raising funds, finding property, and signing leases, Fawcett and other founding members were able to open the doors of a "purpose-built" college, Newnham. (For a brief history of Newnham College, click here.) 

After her husband's death in 1884, Fawcett retired temporarily from political activities, but within a year she was back to campaigning on a variety of issues, from trade unions and and tariff reform to the question of Irish home rule and the elimination of the "white slave trade" (the sexual trafficking of women and girls). She also joined the Personal Rights Association, which attempted to expose men who preyed on women--in one notable incident, she participated in an attack on an army officer who had been stalking a female servant. 

In 1890, Fawcett also joined the largest organization campaigning for women's suffrage, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and was quickly elected president. 

In 1900, the British government asked Fawcett to lead a commission to South Africa to investigate complaints about "policy of extermination" used against the Boer population at the end of the Second Boer War, in particular the government's concentration camps. The Fawcett Commission reported that, because of British policies, 27,927 Boers had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. 

Fawcett's positions on some issues are not without controversy. She campaigned against the passage of the 1857 Divorce Act, supported by many women. Fawcett opposed it for its establishment of a sexual double standard: "a man can obtain the dissolution of the marriage if he can prove one act of infidelity on the part of his wife; but a woman cannot get her marriage dissolved unless she can prove that her husband has been guilty both of infidelity and cruelty." (We'll here more about the Divorce Act of 1857 later this month.)

Fawcett and the NUWSS disavowed the more militant tactics of many suffragists (in fact, her niece, Louisa Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's daughter, was arrested and imprisoned for her role in the Women's Social and Political Union window-breaking protest of 1912). Fawcett also supported the war efforts after the outbreak of war in 1914, and rejected the pacifist position taken by the NUWSS.


Fawcett remained active in the suffrage campaign, largely suspended during the war. But in February 1918, the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, enfranchising women over the age of thirty who were either householders or married to householders. This was followed by the Qualification of Women Act, in November of the same year, which gave women the right to stand for election to Parliament. After this, the NUWSS disbanded, and Fawcett, then in her seventies, largely retired from political life.

She was, however, in Parliament in 1928 when the Representation of the People Act passed--it gave women equality with men, granting them the same right to vote as male citizens. Like men, they had to be twenty-one years old, but there were no longer any marriage or property requirements.

About the experience, 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."

Fawcett died on 5 August 1929.

In addition to her early publications, noted above, Fawcett published a novel, a number of biographies, histories of the suffrage movement (Women's Suffrage : A Short History of a Great Movement [1912], The Women's Victory and After: Personal Reminiscences, 1911–1918 [1920], and What I Remember: Pioneers of the Woman's Movement [1924]).

There's a wonderful biographical essay online at Spartacus Educational.