Both parents encouraged a lively questioning political atmosphere in their home, and as a result many of the daughters of the family including Millicent would be pioneers in gender issues. Her older sister Elizabeth became the first qualified female doctor in the United Kingdom, and her sister Agnes was one of the first female professional interior designers.
Ms Fawcett herself left the school aged 16 and began to devote herself to the political issues she was interested in, having been immersed in school, home, during visits to her sister Elizabeth as she trained to be a GP, and through further visits to her sister Louise, who took her to reform church meetings run by Anglican preacher Frederick Maurice, an advocate of women’s emancipation and education and for poor relief and aid to the suffering.
Ms Fawcett defined herself as a moderate suffragist, and after attending a lecture by John Stuart Mill in 1865 dedicated herself to the fight for women’s rights. The following year she was appointed Secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. Through her friendship with Mr Mill she met Liberal Member of Parliament and suffragist Henry Fawcett (a former suitor of her sister Elizabeth, although they had not met) and the two were described by peers as being perfectly intellectually suited. They wed in 1867 and had their only child Philippa the following year. Ms Fawcett took on the role of Secretary to her husband, who was blind.
Their home became a hub of intellectual suffrage activity and they became members of the Langham Place Circle Women’s Suffrage Advocates. Both before and after the birth of her daughter Ms Fawcett worked on the London Suffrage Committee. In 1869 she gave her first speech at the inaugural pro-suffrage meeting held in London. She became a popular speaker, renowned for her easy style and persuasive manner. Ms Fawcett also began to write and in 1870 her short book Political Economy for Beginners met with widespread acclaim. This book continued to be successful for the next 41 years.
By 1875 she and her husband had co-authored Essays & Lectures on Social and Political Subjects, and she had co-founded Newnham Hall, the second all-female College at Cambridge University which her daughter would later attend. She continued her suffrage work and in 1883 was appointed President of the Special Appeal Committee of the NUWSS.
Ms Fawcett and her husband maintained homes in London and Cambridge, but in 1884 her husband passed away and she and her daughter moved to live with her sister Agnes, selling both homes. Ms Fawcett withdrew from political and social activity for a while, coming back to join the Liberal Unionist party in 1886 on a ticket of opposing Irish Home Rule. Her membership lasted until 1904 when she resigned over disagreements with the leadership.
In 1890 she became Leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) after the death of Lydia Becker. Under her leadership the political factionism of left and right became more united to the cause and the NUWSS grew to be the largest organisation of its kind. Her suffragism was always moderate and she separated herself from the more extreme activism of some of her fellow suffragists whilst expressing understanding for their actions. She herself was a pacifist. She would travel the country, giving talks in schools, clubs, adult education centres and anywhere where she could spread the word of suffrage.
Throughout all this time Ms Fawcett campaigned on other issues, such as “to curb child abuse by raising the age of consent, criminalizing incest, cruelty to children within the family, to end the practice of excluding women from courtrooms when sexual offences were under consideration, to stamp out the ‘white slave trade’and to prevent child marriage and the introduction of regulated prostitution in India”*. Her husband’s work on global political issues meant her activism was worldwide, and she strongly advocated for the rights of workers wherever situated.
Ms Fawcett was also active in addressing the double standards of sexuality the genders faced, such as the prosecution of female prostitutes who were found to have sexually transmitted diseases whilst their customers faced no litigation.
Such was her reputation in 1901 she was selected to travel to South Africa during the Boer War to assess the conditions prisoners of war were living under. Ms Fawcett served as leader of the advisory group of women, and this marked the first time women has been entrusted with such a political role.
Ms Fawcett continued as Leader of the NUWSS through the first World War, and unlike other organisations their campaigning continued from 1914-1918. During the War Ms Fawcett took on a more active role in Indian suffrage, through her meetings with Indian campaigners such as Sophia Duleep Singh and Mithan Lam.
Ms Fawcett stepped down from her role in the NUWSS in 1919, one year after some women were first granted the right to vote, although not on an equal basis to men. The NUWSS disbanded shortly afterwards but Ms Fawcett’s fight continued and in 1928 she was present in Parliament to witness women being given the right to vote on a equal basis with men.
In 1924 Ms Fawcett was awarded the highest honour available to women in the United Kingdom, that of GBE or “Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”, for her services to her country. Ms Fawcett died on 5th August 1929. The Fawcett Library in London and the feminist campaigning society, the Fawcett Society, both named in her honour, continue her work.
* Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett (Janet Howarth, 2004)
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson