Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Janet Copeland Focuses on an Important Figure in the Emancipation of British Women

By Copeland, Janet | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Janet Copeland Focuses on an Important Figure in the Emancipation of British Women


Copeland, Janet, History Review


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 maledominated 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. …

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