Fawcett, Millicent Garrett (1847–1929)

views updated

Fawcett, Millicent Garrett (1847–1929)

British feminist author, speaker, and political leader who witnessed the formal initiation of the women's suffrage campaign in 1867, led the moderate movement for women's enfranchisement, and lived to see the extension of suffrage to women on equal terms with men in 1928. Name variations: Millicent Garrett. Born Millicent Garrett in Aldeburgh, England, on June 11, 1847; died on August 5, 1929, in London, England; daughter of Newson (a well-to-do merchant) and Louisa (Dunnell) Garrett; sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; married Henry Fawcett, in 1867; children: daughter Philippa Fawcett (b. 1868).

Elected to executive committee of London National Society for Women's Suffrage (1867); gave first public speech on women's suffrage (1869); became president of National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (1907–19); awarded honorary degree from the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland (1899); awarded Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire (1925).

Selected publications on women's suffrage and related topics:

Women's Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (1912); The Women's Victory—and After: Personal Reminiscences, 1911–1918 (1920); (autobiography) What I Remember (1924); Some Eminent Women of our Times (1889); Life of Her Majesty Queen Victoria (1895); Five Famous French Women (1905); numerous pamphlets and articles published in periodicals such as Common Cause, The Englishwoman, Woman's Leader, Contemporary Review, Nineteenth Century.

When Millicent Garrett was a very young girl, according to a tale recounted by her biographer and close friend, Ray Strachey , she spent an evening raptly listening to a discussion of the important women's issues of the day between her older sister Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson ) and her sister's good friend, Emily Davies . At the end of the night, Davies supposedly allocated tasks among the three in the upcoming struggle for female emancipation. Davies herself would secure women's equal access to higher education, Elizabeth Garrett would open up the medical profession to women, and little Millicent, as the youngest, would undertake the long fight to obtain the vote for British women on equal terms with men. That quiet evening discussion among three determined girls bore impressive fruit, for Davies founded Girton College at Cambridge University, which allowed women to study for the first time at one of the great British universities, Elizabeth Garrett became the first British woman doctor and a leader in the medical profession, and young Millicent Garrett grew up to become, through her articles and public speaking, the most well-known figure in the British women's suffrage movement, the president of the largest women's suffrage organization in Britain, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and one of the most important figures in securing the vote for women.

I believe it will one day be considered almost incredible that there ever was a time when the idea of giving votes to women who fulfill the conditions which enable men to vote was regarded as dangerous and revolutionary.

—Millicent Garrett Fawcett

In her long life, Millicent Fawcett witnessed unprecedented changes in women's position in British society. At her birth in 1847, women were barred from most educational opportunities and entrance into the professions. For middle-class women especially, their aspirations and endeavors were limited to the realm of home and family. Born into this restrictive environment, Millicent Fawcett nonetheless claimed that she "was a woman suffragist … from my cradle." Indeed, the Garrett family proved to be a veritable breeding ground for future champions of women's emancipation. In addition to the accomplishments of Millicent and Elizabeth, the eldest girl, Louisa Garrett , was actively involved in the early campaign for suffrage reform, another sister, Agnes Garrett , became one of the first female interior decorators and still another sister, Alice Garrett , was a pioneer in local government by women, while their younger brother, Sam, was an attorney who assisted Millicent in her suffrage work and campaigned to open the legal profession to women.

Aldeburgh, where Newson and Louisa Dunnell Garrett raised their extraordinary family of six daughters and four sons, was a quiet town on the coast of Suffolk, England. Louisa was a devoutly Christian woman, who believed in strict observance of the Sabbath. Her strong religious views were not shared by her husband nor, it appears, by her children. Yet, her steadfast devotion may have influenced Millicent's dedication to the cause of female suffrage. Long after Louisa's death, Millicent's sister Alice wrote to her, "I felt … that the cause is to you what religion was to dear mother." Newson was a successful businessman, prominent in local politics, who relished the rapid technological changes such as the spread of the railways which characterized industrializing Britain at mid-century. Apparently, he also enjoyed a rousing fight for a good cause, although this led to a reputation for being quarrelsome. He willingly took on the British medical establishment (and incurred his wife's censure) in assisting Elizabeth Garrett to become a doctor. Millicent, too, never shied away from fighting for her beliefs. She proved to be one of the most able and tenacious debaters in the women's suffrage movement.

Millicent's education was similar in many ways to that of most upper-middle-class Victorian girls. She and her sisters were educated at home by a governess until their early teen years. Millicent then attended a school for girls in London that was unusual in its emphasis on intellectual attainments rather than such traditionally "feminine" accomplishments as needlework and sketching. Millicent's eldest sister, Louisa, who was then married and living in London, introduced the adolescent schoolgirl to the exciting world of mid-century radical politics, bringing her to hear speeches by the reforming cleric F.D. Maurice and the great liberal philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill.

It was at one of these political gatherings that Millicent Garrett met Henry Fawcett, a Liberal member of Parliament and professor of economics at Cambridge University who was 14 years her senior. Although blinded in a hunting accident, Henry Fawcett remained unbowed by his handicap. In addition to his significant academic and political successes, he maintained an active lifestyle, riding, hiking, and fishing as any sighted person would. In October 1866, Henry and Millicent became engaged, after overcoming some initial reluctance by her family (which may have arisen from the fact that Henry had proposed to Elizabeth Garrett a scant one year earlier), and were married in April of the following year.

For several years, Millicent Fawcett served as her husband's secretary. She read parliamentary blue books aloud to him, culled the newspapers and periodicals for articles of political interest

which she then summarized, and escorted him to Parliament where she often watched the debates from the ladies' gallery. These activities, which fit in well with the Victorian ideal of wife as self-sacrificing helpmate, actually contributed greatly to Millicent Fawcett's theoretical and practical political education, knowledge which she would subsequently put to good use in the struggle for the enfranchisement of women. Indeed, Fawcett was present on the historic occasion when J.S. Mill initiated the first of many legislative attempts to secure the vote for women.

Like Mill, Fawcett and her husband were both liberals. In the political terminology of 19th-century Britain, this meant that they favored a policy of laissez-faire economics, with minimal government interference in the workings of the marketplace. The Fawcetts advocated a "fair field and no favor" for women, as the slogan of the day expressed it; that is, they believed in strict equality of men and women, with no governmental advantages to aid one sex over the other. Thus, Millicent Fawcett's goal was not to obtain suffrage for all women. Rather, she argued that women should simply be enfranchised on the same basis as men. In 19th-century Britain, the right to vote was conditioned on the ownership of property. Thus, many Victorian men, as well as all women, were not permitted to exercise the franchise. However, Parliament gradually extended the suffrage to more men with the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884. Millicent Fawcett saw the enfranchisement of women as a logical sequel to these voting reforms. In 1883, she wrote, "The movement for the representation of women is nothing more nor less than a simple outgrowth of the democracy which has been the gradual product of this century."

In addition to her hands-on political experience working with her husband, Fawcett was an unusual Victorian woman in other respects. At a time when most women authors confined themselves to fiction, Millicent Fawcett, with the support and encouragement of her husband, wrote extensively on the political and economic issues of her day. Her Political Economy for Beginners, published in 1870, set forth liberal economic theory in an accessible fashion. The book became a bestseller and was reissued in several editions. Millicent and Henry Fawcett also published a collection of political essays containing selections by each of them.

More important for Fawcett's future role as the leader of the women's suffrage movement, she began to speak in public. In the mid-19th century, many people felt that it was not quite respectable for women to lecture in public. Thus, it was with much trepidation that Fawcett delivered her first speech on women's suffrage at a public meeting in July 1869. With Henry Fawcett's backing, Millicent Fawcett also addressed his Brighton constituency at a political rally. From then on, Fawcett spoke at numerous Liberal Party meetings and other political occasions and was generally lauded for her clear speaking style and intellectual acumen. Those public appearances counteracted two of the stereotypes commonly employed to attack female advocates of women's rights. On the one hand, it was often asserted that such women were unattractive and mannish in their appearance. Millicent Fawcett, however, was petite and attractive, a devoted wife and, after 1868, the mother of a little girl, Philippa Fawcett . In short, Fawcett epitomized Victorian womanhood while ardently advocating women's rights. On the other hand, detractors of the women's movement argued that women should be barred from the exercise of public rights such as voting because they were irrational and overly emotional. In her public appearances, Fawcett also belied this negative depiction. Her speeches relied on rigorous logic to argue her own position and negate objections raised by opponents of women's suffrage. When speaking publicly, Fawcett steadfastly hid her own strong emotions on the topic of women's enfranchisement. Indeed, she was so successful in her endeavor to appear strictly rational and unemotional that later in life even some close friends believed her to be a rather cold and unfeeling person.

Finally, Fawcett was also one of the pioneers in establishing the organizational basis for the women's suffrage movement. She was elected to the executive committee of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, founded in 1867. Her leadership position in that Society allowed Fawcett to develop and exercise her abilities as an organizer and, most important, as a conciliator. She possessed the rare talent of framing positions on tactics and issues that could garner widespread acceptance across the spectrum of the society's membership.

Like many other Victorian feminists, Fawcett believed that the struggle to ensure equality for women was not merely a matter of obtaining the vote. It was expected, of course, that female enfranchisement would lead to more equitable governmental regulation in areas of special concern to women such as social welfare, education, access to the professions for men and women, and standards of public morality. While vigorously pursuing the campaign for women's suffrage, however, Fawcett lent both active and moral support to the struggle for equality in several other areas.

At their home in Cambridge, the Fawcetts hosted a series of lectures for women by professors from the university. These lectures served as the precursor of Newnham College which, with Girton, was one of the first two colleges for women affiliated with Cambridge University. Fawcett later reaped great personal satisfaction and political vindication from this early support of higher education. In 1890, her daughter Philippa Fawcett, an undergraduate at Newnham College, placed above the highest-scoring man on the university's most prestigious mathematics examination. Philippa's ranking "above the senior wrangler" garnered worldwide acclaim and seemed to provide an irrefutable argument that women could succeed academically, even in such traditionally "masculine" subjects as mathematics and the sciences.

Fawcett also opposed the sexual double standard commonly accepted in Victorian Britain that dictated different morality for men and women. She privately supported Josephine Butler 's successful campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts which mandated registration of known or suspected female prostitutes. However, because Fawcett always gave priority to the struggle for the enfranchisement of women, she refrained from public involvement in this controversial campaign, fearing that a linkage of the two issues in the public's mind would damage the suffrage cause. Like many Victorian feminists, Fawcett believed that women would benefit most from greater sexual restraint and higher standards of moral behavior for both men and women, rather than from increased sexual freedom for women. As a member of the National Vigilance Association, Fawcett worked to prevent girls and young women from being enticed into prostitution and to "rescue" those who were already working as prostitutes. She actively supported the newspaper editor W.T. Stead in his 1885 campaign against the white slave trade chronicled in his famous series of articles, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." From 1887 to 1889, Fawcett worked to remove children from the stages of London theaters, where she felt young people were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. She also participated in the campaign to raise the minimum marriage age in British India. Fawcett's almost puritanical morality extended to her colleagues in the women's suffrage movement. She upbraided Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy , who flaunted Victorian morality by living with a man before marriage, asserting that she had done "a great injury to the cause of women."

After her husband Henry died unexpectedly in 1884, Millicent Fawcett found solace in her suffrage work and pursued her writing and speaking with redoubled vigor. Fawcett and other suffragists used personal contacts with MPs to influence parliamentary opinion. In addition, Fawcett's speeches and articles attempted to sway educated public opinion in their favor and to rebut the arguments of the increasingly vocal anti-suffragist faction.

In 1897, the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, of which Fawcett was the leader, and 16 other local women's suffrage organizations, joined together to form the National Union for Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), an umbrella organization of various groups supporting women's enfranchisement. The NUWSS would eventually become the largest women's suffrage organization in Britain, with over 305 affiliated organizations by 1911. In 1907, when the NUWSS adopted a strategy of centralized direction for its member organizations, Fawcett was elected president, a position she held until her resignation in 1919.

In 1901, Fawcett took a short hiatus from her suffrage work to head up the first governmental commission of inquiry composed solely of women. During the Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902), the British army rounded up civilians, including women and children, and placed them in concentration camps to ensure that they would not provide aid to Boer soldiers. Conditions in the camps, including a high mortality rate among children, led to criticism of the British government and the war effort in the British press. Fawcett, an avid patriot who supported the British effort in South Africa, had written a well-publicized article rebutting some of these charges. The War Office appointed Fawcett and five other women to investigate conditions in the camps and issue a report, much to the chagrin of Emily Hobhouse who was angling for quick reforms. Fawcett and her committee spent several months in South Africa, visiting the camps and talking with the inmates as well as the supervising army personnel. Although many had anticipated a whitewash from the commission, given Fawcett's pro-government stance, her final report recommended sweeping sanitary and administrative reforms in the camps, although still sanctioning the general government policy.

Britain was not the only nation in which women were working for enfranchisement. In 1902, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance was established in Washington, D.C., to unite partisans of the women's suffrage movement around the world. As the most prominent leader of the British movement, Fawcett was naturally involved with this new women's organization. She served as both second and first vice-president and established contacts with leaders of the many women's rights organizations around the world.

However, Fawcett's main focus continued to be the struggle for voting rights in Britain. In 1903, the founding of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) drastically altered the situation of the women's suffrage movement in England. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst , leaders of the WSPU suffragettes, as they were called, advocated more militant methods to secure the suffrage. The suffragettes interrupted Liberal Party meetings with embarrassing questions for the speakers, were forcibly ejected from political gatherings, and staged mass demonstrations of angry women in front of Parliament. Initially, Fawcett sanctioned the more militant tactics of the WSPU, hoping that their radicalism would succeed where the strictly parliamentary strategy of the NUWSS had so far failed. However, as the WSPU became more violent, destroying property, engaging in massive window-smashing demonstrations in London and arson in the countryside, Fawcett withdrew her support. She later wrote, "I had no doubt whatever that what was right for me and the NUWSS was to keep strictly to our principle of supporting our movement only by argument, based on common sense and experience and not by personal violence or lawbreaking of any kind."

However, the WSPU's militancy affected Fawcett and the NUWSS in two ways. First, Fawcett's more conservative organization, fearful of losing members, adopted some of the mass mobilization techniques pioneered by the Pankhursts. In February 1907, Fawcett was the principal speaker at the "Mud March" (so called because of the effects of inclement weather), a huge suffrage demonstration by women of all political persuasions. The NUWSS also organized the 1913 "Pilgrimage," a march by non-militant suffragists from all regions of England to a massive rally in London. Second, the radical tactics of the WSPU attracted public attention to the question of women's enfranchisement. Fawcett and the moderate suffragists had concentrated on quietly influencing members of Parliament to support women's suffrage and to initiate legislative reform. With the issue of "Votes for Women" being discussed throughout Britain, Fawcett and her colleagues tried to seize the moment of heightened public interest to push a suffrage reform bill through Parliament.

In the years before World War I, however, Fawcett's parliamentary tactics were blocked by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who staunchly opposed women's suffrage. Fawcett christened him, "our greatest enemy in the Liberal Party." In frustration, Fawcett and the NUWSS abandoned their long-standing policy of providing electoral support to parliamentary candidates who advocated women's enfranchisement and instead vowed to support only candidates of the fledgling Labour Party, the sole political party in Britain to adopt a female suffrage plank as part of its platform.

It was World War I that finally turned the tide for women's suffrage. Fawcett urged women to participate actively in war work, as nurses or doctors at the front, as workers in the wartime munitions industries at home, or simply as replacements in offices and factories for the millions of men who had gone to fight. Her immediate and wholehearted support for the war was motivated by her strong patriotism, her belief that the war was part of the struggle for democracy which alone could secure women's equality, and the idea that women could best justify their claim to the vote by behaving as responsible citizens. But many of her compatriots in the NUWSS were pacifists opposed to British participation in World War I. They strongly believed that women should refrain from assisting the war effort, but instead should work for peace and understanding. In 1915, these opposing views created a rift within the NUWSS. Fawcett survived a challenge to her leadership from the pacifist faction, but many dedicated suffragists left the organization rather than endorse its prowar position.

Even so, women's work during World War I convinced many diehard opponents of female suffrage that women deserved the full rights of citizenship. In 1918, Parliament granted the vote to most women over the age of 30 and simultaneously enacted universal male suffrage. (British women aged 21 and over received the vote ten years later, in 1928.) Millicent Fawcett triumphantly watched the debates and the vote in the House of Commons from the same spot in which she had witnessed the initial parliamentary bid for female suffrage made by Mill more than 50 years earlier. In 1919, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). Her primary task accomplished, Fawcett resigned the presidency, citing her age as the decisive factor. However, she also disagreed with the NUSEC's plan immediately to request votes for women on the same terms as men.

Fawcett spent the remaining decade of her life writing her memoirs and traveling with her sister Agnes who had been her constant companion since Henry's death in 1884. She received several honors from the British government. Fawcett was appointed a magistrate in 1920 and in 1925 she became a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. She died after a brief illness on August 5, 1929.


Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. What I Remember. NY: Putnam, 1925.

Hume, Leslie Parker. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies 1897–1914. NY: Garland, 1982.

Rubinstein, David. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1991.

Strachey, Ray. "The Cause": A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain. London: G. Bell and Sons.

——. Millicent Garrett Fawcett. London: John Murray, 1931.

suggested reading:

Caine, Barbara. Victorian Feminists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lewis, Jane, ed. Before the Vote was Won: Arguments For and Against Women's Suffrage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Morgan, David. Suffragists and Liberals. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975.

Pugh, Martin. Women's Suffrage in Britain. London: The Historical Association, 1980.


The Fawcett Library, London, England.

Mary A. Procida , Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania