Fawcett, Millicent Garrett
FAWCETT, MILLICENT GARRETT
FAWCETT, MILLICENT GARRETT (1847–1929), leader in the British women's suffrage movement.
Born into a comfortable middle-class British family of liberal political leanings, Millicent Garrett Fawcett became active in a number of movements aimed at increasing women's rights starting in the 1860s. Efforts to secure property rights and higher education, and to open the medical profession to women, as well as campaigns to end the double standard of morality for men and women as it was exemplified in divorce and matrimonial law, occupied the first generation of British feminists. The campaign for the vote, these pioneers recognized, was by far the most radical of the reforms they sought, and it was to Fawcett that they entrusted the "Cause."
Best known for her leadership of the constitutional wing of the women's suffrage movement, Fawcett worked tirelessly throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to gain votes for women. As head of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which brought numerous discrete women's suffrage societies into a single umbrella organization in 1897, she directed a sustained, if unsuccessful, campaign to persuade politicians to extend the franchise to women on the same terms as it was or would be granted to men. On the face of it a conservative demand, because the property qualifications required for possession of the vote excluded a significant portion of working-class men from wielding it, suffragists meant for the vote to be the means by which they would dramatically alter the lives of women and men in all realms of life—social, economic, and personal as well as legal and political. As a symbol of civic personhood, they believed that votes for women would help to counteract notions about the natural differences between men and women that justified inequality and the sexual oppression of women. As a pragmatic instrument of power, they sought the vote to
eliminate laws that enshrined women's inequality and sexual vulnerability to men in the constitution.
Fawcett was careful to keep any taint of scandal from attaching to the campaign for women's suffrage, but she supported the efforts of reformers like Josephine Butler (1828–1906) and William Thomas Stead (1849–1912) to end the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In one instance, she acted to expose the behavior of member of Parliament (MP) Henry Cust (1861–1917, who had deserted a woman he had impregnated, and prevent him from standing for reelection. In response to the assertion of Conservative Party leader Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930) that Cust's private behavior was "of no public concern," Fawcett declared that it was precisely this acceptance of the double standard of morality for men that enabled exploitation of women to take place. She vowed that the enfranchisement of women would establish a "healthy 'coercion' of law and public opinion" that would prevent men like Cust from behaving as they did.
Overshadowed by the spectacular agitation of the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) headed by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) and Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958), which brought the cause of women's suffrage to public notice in 1906, the NUWSS under Fawcett conducted its campaign through law-abiding activities of petitioning MPs, holding public meetings, and sponsoring marches and public demonstrations. In contrast to the Pankhursts, who led the members of the WSPU with an authoritarian control that would brook no dissent, Fawcett presided over an inclusive, democratic organization. She did not agree with the convictions and strategies of some of her colleagues who sought to ally with the Labour Party in order to advance the cause of women's enfranchisement, but sheworked toensure that the NUWSS presented a unified public face. With the outbreak of war in 1914, both the WSPU and the NUWSS suspended their suffrage activities in order to support the prosecution of the war. Unlike the WSPU, however, the NUWSS maintained its organizational structure throughout the war; when it became clear to the government in 1917 that a new franchise would be required if men of the armed forces were to be allowed to vote when they returned from the war, Fawcett mobilized her NUWSS colleagues to demand that women be included in any new bill.
Over a period of months, Fawcett negotiated with parliamentary officials to reach an agreement. The 1918 Representation of the People Act granted universal suffrage to men over the age of twenty-one but it restricted the vote to women over the age of thirty, seeking thereby to ensure that women would not enjoy a majority over men, whose numbers had been so dramatically reduced by the carnage of World War I. Fawcett's acceptance of the bill constituted an abandonment of the long-held principle of sex equality; she and other NUWSS leaders explained to their discontented Labour followers, most of whom would not be admitted to the franchise because they were under age, that they did not wish to jeopardize their chances for partial success by holding out for more. Fawcett resigned as president of the NUWSS in 1918, but she steadily continued to work for complete women's suffrage until it was granted in 1928. Until the 1980s, scholars tended to overlook her and the constitutional movement she led, devoting their attention to the more visible and exciting militant campaign led by the charismatic Pankhursts. Since then, however, historians have given Fawcett her due, recognizing the central role played by the NUWSS in championing and ultimately winning women's suffrage, and crediting Fawcett's steady, quiet, conciliatory leadership with its success.
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Susan Kingsley Kent