Millicent Fawcett, Suffrage Heroine & Consummate Politician

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(Women’s Library)

It is wonderful news that there’s to be a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square. Not only will it celebrate the life of a remarkable person, unjustly neglected in the past, but it’ll be a timely monument to the power of peaceful persuasion, solidarity across social, political and generational divides, and mutual support. Those are the things she and her colleagues – men and women together – stood for. Marched for. Died for, even. Maybe people will realise at last that there is a difference between militant suffragettes (the minority of activists) and non-militant suffragists like her, and appreciate that neither group could have won the vote without the other.  It’s particularly thrilling that she should be the first woman honoured in this way, given her lack of interest in personal celebrity. She played the long game with humility, good humour, acuity and – eventually – success.

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(Women’s Library)

Millicent Fawcett, nee Garrett (1847-1929), came from a fascinating and progressive family. She was brought up in Suffolk, the daughter of a pawnbroker turned maltster and ship-owner, and educated rather scantily at the ‘Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen’ in Blackheath, London. She left at 15. Her sisters included Louisa, a member of the influential ‘Langham Place’ group of early feminists, and Elizabeth, who famously became the first woman Doctor to qualify in the UK.

At 18, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, an economist, academic and Liberal politician. He was blind and somewhat relied on his willing wife to act as an amanuensis. She continued to move in the radical circles inhabited by her family, and shared Henry’s interest in women’s rights. Her sister Elizabeth had presented the first massed petition for women’s suffrage to MP John Stuart Mill in 1866; their friend Emily Davies pioneered higher education for women and opened Girton College in 1869. Millicent herself supported the founders of Newnham College in Cambridge a few years later.

She became increasingly involved in the women’s suffrage campaign. Her talent for public speaking and administration shone through; she was a great tactician and diplomat, too, and in 1897 was appointed president of the newly-formed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). People warmed to her. She was a terrific knitter and gleefully learned to ride a bicycle as soon as they came into fashion. She combined these unexpected enthusiasms with a clear-headed ability to prioritise issues, manage people and express herself engagingly and with authority. No less importantly, she had a healthy sense of fun and was an inveterate optimist. (Fun isn’t something traditionally associated with the suffrage campaign, more’s the pity; there’s plenty of it, however, if you know where to look.)

 FullSizeRender (1)        (Oldham Local Studies and Archives)

Millicent spent most of her career immersed in the practical and strategic complexities of winning the vote and changing the world. She realised the advantages of consolidation; of making progress by risking two steps forward then conceding a step back. Her most glorious achievement was her association with the Great Pilgrimage (see previous posts, and my book ‘Hearts and Minds’ when it comes out in January). After the six-week march was completed, she asked recalcitrant Prime Minister Asquith whether he would finally agree that women deserved to be called ‘people’, and so to be included in any future Representation of the People Act. Albeit reluctantly, he was forced to acquiesce. Women were people, too.

When I took part in the Women’s March last January, I thought of Millicent Fawcett as I walked through the streets of London with thousands of like-minded people. The atmosphere was so powerful, full of love, strength of spirit, shared intent. I can hardly wait to return next year to visit her statue and lay a posy of flowers in the suffragist colours – red, white and green – at her feet. I owe her that tribute, at least. We all do.

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