Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Janet Copeland focuses on an important figure in the emancipation of British women.

Millicent Fawcett
Millicent Fawcett

Whoever thinks of the women’s suffrage movement thinks of the suffragettes, and whoever think of suffragettes thinks of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. Their story is indeed a fascinating, and highly controversial, one. But the Pankhurst and the suffragettes, who grabbed the political headlines with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) before the First World War and seem to hold the historical headlines to this day, should not monopolise attention. There are many other figures worthy of study, and there is certainly one towering individual among the suffragists of whom students should know much more than they do – Millicent Fawcett. Indeed it is arguable that she was of greater importance than Mrs Pankhurst in the growth and ultimate success of the movement to obtain votes for women.  

Joining the Struggle

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was born in Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, on 11 June 1847, a daughter of Newson and Louisa Garrett. It was a highly privileged background. She was fortunate that her father was a wealthy merchant and shipowner, and fortunate that her parents were remarkably free of the dominant ideology of male supremacy which saw the feminine as the second-best. All of their ten children attended the same boarding school in London for several years, while at home the parents encouraged interest in the political issues of the day, as well as free thought and the free expression of opinion.

It is significant that several daughters of this high-powered family achieved eminence. Elizabeth was to become one of the first female doctors in Britain (as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), and her younger sisters followed her struggle against a male-dominated medical elite with interest and passion. Agnes became one of the first women interior designers in Britain, and also a pioneering businesswoman. Clearly Millicent was fortunate not only in her environment but in her genes.

When did Milly first support votes for women? It is impossible to say, for she seemed to be born a feminist. She didn’t become 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.’ Nevertheless a significant event occurred in July 1865, when Millicent, aged only 17, heard John Stuart Mill address an election meeting. She recorded that ‘This meeting kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for women’s suffrage’.

She was present in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons when Mill introduced his famous amendment to the 1867 Representation of the People Bill, on 20 May 1867: ‘man’ was to become ‘person’, if the male MPs were so willing. They were not. Two months later she attended the first meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage and joined its executive committee. She was a speaker at its first public meeting. This took some courage, since for a woman to speak in public was deemed unseemly if not downright immoral. In addition, public speaking, as she put it, always ‘takes it out of me’. But in the words of Melanie Phillips, she was ‘a class act’, not an inspiring orator perhaps but always a composed and persuasive one. She did not stop lecturing for long over the next 60 years.
She expressed her new purpose most simply in a speech she made in Birmingham’ Town Hall in 1872:

To promote the improvement of   the condition of women is a    great and noble cause to devote   one’s life to. Success in such a   cause is a goal worthy of the   noblest ambition; failure in such   a cause is a better thing than   success in any meaner or paltrier  object.
There can be no doubt that, though her tactics were less eye-catching and seemingly less heroic than those of Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett devoted her life to the improvement of the conditions of women.  

Franchise Arguments

Her arguments in favour of votes for women were really quite simple. She did not believe that men and women were the same: if they were, votes for women would not be such a political imperative. The sexes had different abilities, women being more loving and nurturing, and having higher moral standards; but their spheres of activity overlapped and politics were of joint interest. ‘We do not want women to be bad imitations of men,’ she insisted; ‘we neither deny nor minimise the differences between men and women. The claim of women to representation depends to a large extent on those differences. Women bring something to the service of the state different from that which can be brought by men.’ The end result of extending the franchise would be an elevation of the tone of public life.

She argued that since women could hold responsible posts in society, such as sitting on school boards, they should be trusted with the vote. Since women as well as men had to pay taxes, women should have a say in how those taxes were spent. Similarly, since parliament made laws for all to obey, women as well as men should take part in the making of those laws – and female legislators would initiate valuable reforms, such as raising the age of consent, and thereby end the sexual double standard. In short, like so many other suffragists, Fawcett believed that only if women had the vote would they be treated as equal citizens with men. Yet while wealthy mistresses employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote, women could not, regardless of their wealth or ability.

These were simple arguments, and to her mind irrefutable. Yet the education of men in the principles of sexual equality could be no easy or fast process. 

Marriage

In April 1865 Millicent met Henry Fawcett, a remarkable man, 14 years her senior. Despite being blinded in an accident, he had become Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge in 1863 and, a few years later, Radical Liberal MP for Brighton and an associate of Mill. When news reached them of the assassination of one of their heroes, the American President Abraham Lincoln, Milly remarked that the death was a greater loss than the demise of any crowned head in Europe, a sentiment that caused Henry to fall instantly in love. They married in 1867. A year later their only child, Philippa, was born. It was, according to all the evidence, an ideal marriage.

The wife acted as her husband’s guide and secretary, often reading out his academic papers at seminars and making notes for him during House of Commons debates. But she did not play second fiddle. She ran their two households, at Cambridge and London, but also wrote herself. Her first article, on women’s education, appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1868, and her interest in this field led her to become one of the founders of Newnham College for women in Cambridge in 1875. She also published a textbook, Political Economy for Beginners, which went into ten editions and several languages, and also two novels. She campaigned in favour of the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Bill and in favour of the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The former, in 1882, allowed married women some control over their own finances. The need for this was brought home viscerally to Millicent in 1877 when her purse was stolen at Waterloo Station. The thief was apprehended and charged with ‘stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1 18s 6d, the property of Henry Fawcett’. (‘I felt as if I had been charged with theft myself’, she later recalled.) The latter, in 1886, removed the right of police to arrest, detain and medically treat women suspected of being prostitutes, though not of course their male clients – an egregious example of the sexual double standard.

Henry Fawcett fully sympathised with his wife’s views on the suffrage and was in favour of an amendment tabled by William Woodall to the 1884 Reform Bill which would have enfranchised around 100,000 wealthy women. However, the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, said he would withdraw the Bill if the amendment was passed and the crucial vote was lost, much to Millicent’s disgust. She later wrote that this division ‘probably sowed the seeds of the militant movement’. Henry, though Postmaster-General in the government, had refused to obey Gladstone’s call to vote against the amendment.

Henry Fawcett’s days in the government were clearly numbered, but it was death that removed him. He died quite suddenly in November 1884, leaving Millicent a widow of 34. She turned down an offer to become mistress of Girton and instead moved in with her sister Agnes, in Bloomsbury, and was sustained by her extended family, by music and literature, and of course by her work. She regularly contributed to the journals of the day and also produced several biographies. Above all, she had the cause of women to promote.

Organisation

These were early days for the women’s suffrage movement, and it took some time to forge politically effective organisations. Should the suffragists fix their hopes on any particular party? If so, the Liberals seemed the best bet, but their leader’s reluctance to take action was a major stumbling-block. Should women campaign for more democracy in general, since that was bound to include women? Yet the Third Reform Act of 1884, which enfranchised agricultural labourers, did not give the vote to a single woman.

With the death of her husband in 1884, Mrs Fawcett decided to devote more time to the women’s movement. She resumed her regular lectures explaining why women should have the vote. But there was no effective forum to channel the movement. She had joined the executive of the Central Committee for Women’s Suffrage, but in 1888 there was a split in its ranks over whether to allow other women’s organisations to affiliate. Millicent led the faction opposed to change. She was a fierce opponent of Gladstone and after the 1886 Liberal split over Home Rule for Ireland she became a Liberal Unionist and therefore did not want to make common cause with women’s bodies like the Women’s Liberal Federation. A majority of members, who wished to see affiliation, reformed themselves as the Central National Society, while Millicent became honorary secretary and then treasurer of the old Central Committee.

A breakthrough came in 1893. Millicent became President of the Special Appeal Committee that was urging suffrage societies to put aside their differences and work together. Finally, in 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was inaugurated, a landmark in the history of the suffrage movement in Britain. Millicent Fawcett was in many ways its natural leader, though it was not until in 1907 that she became its President. 

The NUWSS

Millicent was a gradualist. Hence she was in favour of William Woodall’s amendment to the 1884 Reform Bill, which would have enfranchised single women but excluded married women. There was no logical reason why all women should not vote, she believed, but half a loaf was better than no bread. And once the citadel had been breached and some women had the vote, the campaign could be focused on extending the numbers enfranchised. She knew that men had received the vote in stages, and that indeed many men still could not vote. The campaign to educate men was bound to take a long time. Women must not therefore lose heart.

All agreed that Fawcett ran the organisation on exemplarily democratic lines. As Paula Bartley has written, the NUWSS ‘coordinated rather than controlled’ the work of the local suffrage societies. Furthermore it was undoubtedly efficient. Many men were won over by its arguments, and she welcomed their support. She had no wish to attack men, either physically or intellectually. Reform, she knew, was needed for the good of both sexes. She was certainly making a name for herself, and when a storm of disapproval arose, during the Boer War, over the concentration camps in which the families of Boer soldiers were interned, she was appointed head of an investigating commission. She sailed for South Africa in July 1901 with the rest of the ‘White-washing Commission’, or so its opponents dubbed it. In fact, Millicent Fawcett found much that was wrong with the camps and made far-reaching recommendations for improvements. Inevitably the cause of female suffrage was enhanced, for no woman had ever been given such an important role in wartime. Had this woman, denied the vote at home, not presided over male commissioners? A few years later, she became the first woman ever to speak in an Oxford Union debate.

The evidence was stacking up that women should be allowed to vote, and the size of the NUWSS was growing. In 1897 there had been six constituent societies; by 1905, there were 305. A few years later, there were at least 50,000 members. Millicent believed in ‘a grand freemasonry between different classes of women’ and the NUWSS often employed working-class speakers. She was optimistic that the male establishment would be won over. Certainly a growing number of MPs believed that women, or at least some women, should be allowed to vote. And yet governments failed to take action. A breakthrough seemed to have been made in December 1911, but at the last minute Prime Minister Asquith broke his promise and denied women the vote. ‘If Mr Asquith desired to revive a violent outbreak of militancy,’ noted Mrs Fawcett, ‘he could not have … done more to promote his end.’ Her own patience was running thin; that of some women had worn out altogether several years earlier, when the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had been founded.

The Suffragettes

Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst had much in common – in social background, in marrying older men who left them widows, in intellectual ability, and in commitment to the cause of female emancipation. Nor should it be thought that Mrs Pankhurst immediately initiated violent tactics: often she merely accepted what her followers began. Nevertheless she and Millicent Fawcett were worlds apart in their outlook. The founder of the WSPU was far more radical, militant and intense. To her, the peaceful methods of the NUWSS were complacent. The suffragettes called for ‘deeds not words’, and those deeds soon included breaking windows, destroying golf courses and even blowing up buildings.

At first the WSPU acted as a spur to the NUWSS. When, at the state opening of Parliament in 1906, a group of women were arrested and imprisoned for waving flags and standing on chairs in the central lobby of the House of Commons, Millicent was furious. She wrote to The Times that the suffragists should stand by the suffragettes, since ‘far from having injured the movement, they have done more during the last twelve months to bring it within the region of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years’. She held a banquet in honour of the women when they were released from Holloway in December. Furthermore, in 1907, when she became its new President, the NUWSS adopted a new constitution, giving its executive the power to take decisions and to control its spending. Working-class women were encouraged more, and it published its own newspaper, Common Cause. Mrs Fawcett now organised demonstrations and marches to publicise the cause, sometimes wearing her doctoral robes – she had been given an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1899 – as a sign of what women could achieve. She herself held meetings with Lloyd George and Asquith to demand the vote. Could there be common cause with the suffragettes?

The answer was No. Millicent Fawcett was more active than ever before in the years leading up to 1914, but she was still conciliatory, pragmatic and moderate. She did not call for universal suffrage for women, since the government would find it much less easy to veto a more limited franchise. Above all, she insisted that the tactics of the NUWSS should be law-abiding and constitutional. Not so Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU. Soon Millicent feared that their violence would alienate many potential supporters and would provide the government with the ideal excuse not to grant the suffrage to women, whom they could now so easily brand as wild and irresponsible – and therefore unfit to vote. Women had to win hearts and minds, and this could not be done by violence and intimidation. She was always publicly restrained in her criticisms, feeling that women working for the same cause should not condemn each other, but privately she vented her feelings. The storming of parliament by militant suffragettes in 1909 she described as an ‘immoral and dastardly thing to have done’, and when the suffragette campaign was stepped up in 1912, with sporadic violence giving way to arson and bomb attacks, the breach between suffragist and suffragette was complete. Nevertheless she condemned the government’s heavy-handed reaction, and especially force-feeding.

Millicent recalled later that this was ‘the most difficult time of my forty years of suffrage work’. It was difficult because of the disunity in the women’s movement and difficult also because there were very few signs that the vote would be achieved in the near future. In the summer of 1913, now aged 66, she took an active part in a mass demonstration which Asquith praised because it was law-abiding. He agreed to see Fawcett’s demonstration, and Milly noted ‘a notable improvement in his attitude and language’; but she had no great hopes of his government. More and more her hopes were on the Labour Party, though it had only 40 seats in the Commons.

The First World War

Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst both believed that war in 1914 was forced on Britain by Prussian militarism and both decided to put patriotism before the vote. They urged their followers to aid the war effort in every way possible. The membership of the NUWSS fell to around 33,000 and the unity of the organisation was compromised. A minority of pacifists tried to remove Millicent from the presidency, though she was given a vote of confidence at a special council meeting in June 1915.

Votes for women was on the back burner, but Millicent was aware that women during the war could earn the vote afterwards. ‘Let us prove ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim be recognised or not.’ Women in the factories did just this, by giving the lie to men’s stereotyped assumption of the female as the weak and ineffectual. Millicent recalled:

It was almost ridiculous to watch  the amazement of the ordinary man when he saw how rapidly women learned men’s jobs and how… their output frequently exceeded, and exceeded largely, the output of men working the same machinery for the same number of hours.

From May 1916 Mrs Fawcett urged her members to write to ministers to press for the vote, and she led a delegation to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, in March 1917. A new franchise bill was being mooted, and she wished to have her say. The result was a new Representation of the People Act, with a female suffrage clause. In March she chaired a rally by the NUWSS in the Queen’s Hall. It was, she said, the greatest moment of her life. It was not total victory, since only women aged 30 and over would be able to vote – and thus there would still be fewer women voters than men, who could vote at the age of 21 – but it was a great breakthrough. Further reform could only be a matter of time.

Conclusion

In March 1919 Millicent Fawcett, aged almost 72, retired from the presidency of the NUWSS, which now became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, giving way to the much younger Eleanor Rathbone. But despite her age Milly retained several influential positions, including being vice-president of the League of Nations Union. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1925, wrote several more books, and lived to see the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave the vote to all British adults aged 21 and over. At a special celebration, she announced that great things were to be expected of the new emancipated woman. She died the following year, on 5 August 1929. 

Millicent Fawcett’s story lacks the drama of Emmeline Pankhurst’s. She never went to prison and never really suffered for the cause. She was too much the well-rounded individual – and had too much faith in reason and democracy – ever to be an unbalanced extremist. Admittedly she seems today a somewhat remote figure. Very much a Victorian liberal, she idealised the family, opposed birth control and stood for personal responsibility, so that she opposed free education and, later, family allowances. She was deeply offended by the Edwardian advocates of free love. When presented with a copy of the Freewoman, she found it ‘objectionable and mischievous’ and ripped it into little pieces. Yet she worked long and hard to bring about votes for women. There are different types of heroism, and to give decades of her life to the cause, and to do so patiently and moderately, without giving way to hate or despair, surely qualifies Millicent Fawcett as a heroine whose praises should be song more loudly than they are.

Issues to Debate

  • Why did Millicent Fawcett believe that women should be enfranchised?
  • What common ground, and what differences, existed between her and Emmeline Pankhurst?
  • How significant a contribution did she make to the achievement of the vote in 1918?  
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