Women’s suffrage advocate Millicent Garrett Fawcett will become the first woman to be honoured with a statue in Westminster’s Parliament Square next month to mark the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 1918 act which gave women the vote for the first time. But who exactly was she?
At the age of 12, in 1858, she went to London with her older sister Elizabeth (who would go on to become Britain’s first female doctor) to study at a private boarding school in Blackheath. A key moment came seven years later in 1865 when she went to hear a speech by radical MP John Stuart Mills who spoke of equal rights for women.
Fawcett was deeply impacted and became actively involved in his campaign. When she was just 18, Millicent was introduced via Mills to Henry Fawcett, MP for Brighton and women’s rights activist and the two became close friends before, despite an age difference of 14 years, marrying on 23rd April, 1867. As well as caring for her husband who had been blinded in a shooting accident some 10 years before they were wed, Millicent took up a role as his secretary.
In 1868, Millicent gave birth to their only child, Philippa, and the family spent their time between two households – one in London (at 51 The Lawn on the site of what is now Vauxhall Park) and the other in Cambridge (where she later became a co-founder of Newnham College).
Meanwhile, with her husband’s encouragement, she was also pursuing her own writing career, penning the popular short book, Political Economy for Beginners, which was published in 1870, as well as becoming a well-known public speaker on a range of issues including women’s rights.
While when her husband – then Postmaster General – died of pleurisy on 6th November, 1884, Millicent temporarily withdrew from public life (it was after Henry’s death that, as per his wishes, Vauxhall Park was created on the site of his former home). But the years following saw her become increasingly engaged in activities in support of women’s suffrage.
She was involved in the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 – it went on to become the largest group of its kind with 50,000 members by 1913 – and would later become its president, a post she would hold until after World War I.
Fawcett’s interests, however, also saw her involved in campaigns to curb child abuse, to end child marriage and the “white slave trade” as well as the formation of a relief fund for South African women and children affected by the Boer War (in 1901 she visited South Africa as head of a commission charged with reporting on conditions in concentration camps).
When some groups advocating for women’s suffrage started to take more violent action – which included breaking windows and hunger strikes when jailed, Fawcett argued against such militancy and remained among the moderates, convinced that women would eventually win the vote as a result of the changes taking place in society.
Suffrage activism was interrupted thanks to World War I but the role women played in support of the war effort saw opinion shift enough for, in 1918, the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which gave women aged over 30 voting rights.
In 1919, Fawcett retired from active engagement in politics. She was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in 1925.
Fawcett witnessed the passing of an act to give women equal voting rights to men in 1928 – 10 years after the first act – before dying, at the age of 82, at her home at 2 Gower Street in Bloomsbury, London, on 5th August, 1929 (there’s a Blue Plaque on the property where she had lived for more than 45 years – pictured above). She was cremated at Golders Green but there is a memorial to both her and her husband in Westminster Abbey.
The Fawcett Society, which has carried her name since 1953, continues to fight sexism and gender inequality in the UK, campaigning on issues such as closing the gender pay gap.