Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) was a British feminist, who led the nonviolent campaign for votes for women.
At the turn of the century, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was Britain's most important leader in the fight for women's suffrage. Although people today often identify the militant Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters with the struggle, Fawcett contributed more than anyone else to British women obtaining the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Valuing rational thought and her own privacy, she rejected the cult of personality that surrounded more dramatic and emotional leaders.
Changing times make Fawcett appear old-fashioned, an unchanging adherent of the ideology of individual rights popular in the mid-19th century who was surprisingly conventional in many of her opinions. She seems frozen in the late 1860s, opposing free schools as undermining a healthy spirit of independence, defending the severe sexual code that prevailed among the middle classes during her youth, and glorying in an unthinking patriotism. The modern feminist Ann Oakley described Fawcett's life as "marked by monotony and by great tranquility of spirit, and by no detectable change or development in her moral philosophy or political attitudes." Significantly, nobody has bothered to write a full-length biography of this unrevolutionary suffragist since 1931 when a friend did the rather bland, official life. As a result, Fawcett is a half-forgotten giant of British reform.
Millicent Garrett was born at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in England, on June 11, 1847, one of the younger children in a large, middle-class family. She had a close relationship with her admiring and independent-minded father, but she rejected her mother's rigidly evangelical religion. Although Milly, as she was known to family and friends, obtained very little formal schooling, she benefited from a supportive family that expected much of her. Her older sister Elizabeth (Garrett Anderson) set an example by becoming Britain's second woman physician.
In 1867, the 19-year-old Millicent Garrett married Henry Fawcett (who had previously proposed to her sister Elizabeth and to the prominent feminist, Bessie Rayner Parkes). Already committed before her marriage to liberal principles in politics and economics, Millicent Garrett Fawcett fully shared the interests and convictions of her husband and served for several years as his secretary. A Liberal Party member of the House of Commons, he had been blinded in a shooting accident ten years earlier. As she read what he had to read and wrote what he had to write, she acquired a political education, along with one in economics, the subject which he taught at Cambridge University. She also learned from her husband's friends, including John Stuart Mill, the most influential liberal thinker in mid-Victorian Britain.
As a young woman, Fawcett pursued many interests. Along with a novel, she wrote two books on economics, one in collaboration with her husband; worked to promote higher education for women, particularly Newnham College at Cambridge where her daughter eventually studied; and, most important, enlisted in the campaign to provide women with the vote, in her opinion the key to equality between the sexes. She also joined the first organization advocating votes for women, the London Women's Suffrage Committee.
After her husband's sudden death in 1884, leaving her a widow at age 37, she made the cause of women's suffrage her life's work. Following the death of the longtime suffrage leader Lydia Becker in 1890, Fawcett emerged as the most influential figure in Britain's small band of suffragists. When the organizations united in 1897 as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, she became the first president (and served until her retirement in 1919).
Although most suffragist women supported the Liberal Party, Fawcett broke with the Liberals in 1886 out of opposition to Irish Home Rule, a proposal that Ireland enjoy political autonomy but not independence. She was active in the new breakaway Liberal Unionist Party that cooperated closely with the Conservative Party, but she never put political party over her principles. For instance, in the mid-1890s, she offended many important men in the Conservative-Liberal Unionist alliance when she tried to hound out of politics a Conservative who had seduced a young woman and then failed to marry her. In 1901, her prominence in Liberal Unionist affairs earned her an appointment to head an investigation of conditions at interment camps for Boer civilians during the South African war. Some old friends accused her of collaborating with brutal imperialism. In 1903, she broke with the Liberal Unionist party because she could not support its leader Joseph Chamberlain in his new policy of tariff reform. Fawcett remained loyal to the mid-19th-century principles of free trade and laissez-faire.
The problems confronting the suffragists were complex. Although some women could vote in local government elections (and hold office), none could vote for members of the national legislature. Influential newspapers scoffed at the notion of women voting in parliamentary elections (which might deal with questions leading to war) and feared the political role of women (i.e., making possible moral reform legislation to restrict the sale of alcoholic drink). A majority of the House of Commons, particularly Liberal Party members, probably sympathized with women's suffrage in principle, but this did not mean voting for a bill that would enfranchise women. Part of the problem was the personal opposition of turn-of-the-century Liberal leaders William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith. Another part of the problem was the absence of universal male suffrage. If the vote went only to those women who met the existing requirements for men, the change would likely benefit the Conservative Party by enfranchising prosperous widows but not married women. Moreover, some politicians tried to entangle the enfranchisement of any women with the more controversial reform of universal male suffrage. Finally, women's suffrage never became the central question for ordinary voters and politicians in the way that, for instance, Irish Home Rule did.
Fawcett struggled to keep her cause alive when prospects for success seemed remote. Known for her sense of humor, she never allowed herself to be discouraged: she was an inexhaustible worker who without the aid of a secretary answered all her correspondence on the day it was received. Though she detested speechmaking, she became an effective public speaker whose unemotional speeches were distinguished by the clarity of her logic. Self-reliant, she ordinarily traveled on foot to her interviews with politicians even when that meant walking for miles and, a bit old-fashioned, she refused to have a telephone in her home.
But in the early 20th century, women's suffrage could not be ignored. Beginning in 1905, the organization headed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia adopted militant tactics: they disrupted political meetings, destroyed private and public property and, when arrested, resisted with hunger strikes. Although Fawcett and her much larger National Union rejected such tactics, the constitutional suffragists benefited from the attention that the militants provoked.
Probably some form of women's suffrage would have been enacted, sooner or later, even without the First World War, but the war of 1914-18 promoted women's suffrage in many ways. The contribution of women to the war effort converted some former antisuffragists and allowed others a pretext for a change of position that political expediency had forced. The desire to enfranchise voteless soldiers forced politicians to deal with a general enlargement of the suffrage. Prime Minister Asquith, an old enemy of women's suffrage, was replaced by the more sympathetic David Lloyd George. On the other hand, the war presented a brief but severe challenge to Fawcett's leadership of the National Union in 1915. She wanted to use the suffragist organization to work for military victory. In contrast, pacifist-minded officers wanted to negotiate a peace without insisting on the defeat of Germany.
Fawcett supported the compromise in 1918 that enfranchised women age 30 and older and men age 21 and older. Having succeeded in obtaining women's suffrage, she retired as president of the National Union at the beginning of 1919. Remaining active in the promotion of the status of women, she was gratified by the legislation in 1928 that gave women voting rights equal to those of men. Ironically, by this time she had resigned her membership in the National Union to protest her successor's advocacy of family allowances, subsidies paid to mothers for the upbringing of children. Fawcett also continued writing books, including one about Palestine where she had traveled with a sister. Although her religious principles remained essentially agnostic, she often attended Church of England services in her last years. In 1924, she was honored with the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire and became Dame Millicent Fawcett, a woman's title equivalent to a man's knighthood. Two years later, activists in the women's movement established the Fawcett Library, a collection of the materials for women's history that acquired most of her papers. (It is now located at the City of London Polytechnic.) She died at her London home on August 5, 1929.
Her only child, Philippa Garrett Fawcett (1868-1948), was a brilliant mathematics student at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1890, refuting the notion of women's intellectual inferiority at a time when Cambridge University let women take the exams but would not award them degrees, she earned higher grades in the mathematics examination than the ablest male student. She served as principal assistant to the director of education, London County Council, from 1904 until her retirement in 1934.
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