Millicent Fawcett, British Suffragette

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In researching Victoria Woodhull’s life in England, I have met many new characters. One of them is Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Victoria wanted to work with Mrs. Fawcett, but Mrs. Fawcett had already been warned by Susan B. Anthony to stay away from the “indecent” Claflin-Woodhull sisters. Below is a brief sketch on Mrs. Fawcett’s interesting life.

Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the movement for women’s suffrage in England, was born in 1847 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Millicent was the seventh of the prosperous Garrett family’s ten children; her father Newson was a ship owner and political radical who supported his eldest daughter in becoming a physician. When Millicent Fawcett was twelve, she was sent to London to study at a private boarding school, and when Fawcett was nineteen, she saw a public lecture in favor of women’s suffrage by the radical Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill’s Utilitarian understanding of universal suffrage—based on the principle that people should take the actions that lead to the greatest god for the greatest number of human beings—influenced Garrett throughout her life.

In April 1867, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, a fellow activist and professor of political economy at Cambridge. Henry Fawcett was fourteen years Millicent’s senior and was blind due to a hunting accident, but the two felt a close intellectual camaraderie. In the 1870s, Fawcett became well known as a speaker on women’s rights, not least because she was a vociferous critic of the status quo at a time when women rarely ventured into public alone and virtually no man supported her cause. Fawcett played a crucial role in the 1871 founding of Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the first English university colleges for women, which quickly became a meeting space for like-minded women and a breeding ground for the radical women’s rights movement.

In 1884, Henry Fawcett died, leaving Millicent a widow at the age of just thirty-eight. After her husband’s death, she became involved in the Personal Rights Association, a group dedicated to helping disadvantaged women, and in 1890 Fawcett was elected the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the largest group campaigning for women’s suffrage. In July 1901, during the South African War, Fawcett was sent by the government to investigate the British concentration camps for Boer civilians, camps that were at the center of a large public controversy in Britain. Her report vindicated the administration of the camps, which to some reformers appeared too lenient toward the adminstration. The Liberal government of 1901-1914 refused to consider extending women the right to vote, which encouraged the more militant campaigners for women’s suffrage to lash out in violent ways: by attacking police officers, taking part in hunger strikes, and breaking windows. Fawcett admired the courage of militant reformers like Emily and Christabel Pankhurst, but she and the NUWSS maintained their nonviolent stance throughout the struggle. Fawcett was criticized by many of her pacifist fellows for her actions during World War One, in which she dedicated her organization to sustaining the “vital forces of the nation” by participating in the war effort. After the war, she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Finally, in 1918, the Qualification of Women Act was passed, giving women over thirty the right to vote. The NUWSS was disbanded and Fawcett retired from actively engaging in politics, writing a book about the struggle called The Women’s Victory (1920). Fawcett lived to see the final completion of her life’s work in 1928, when Parliament made the voting age for men and women equal. Fawcett died in 1929.

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