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Dame Millicent Fawcett and Women’s Suffrage

Posted in Historical articles, Politics on Monday, 31 October 2011

This edited article about Women’s Suffrage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 852 published on 13 May 1978.

Suffragettes montage, picture, image, illustration

A montage of people and events in the history of the Suffragettes

“I, and I think the great majority of the men and women who are working for our cause, look upon the women’s movement as one of the very greatest things that has ever happened in the history of the world.”

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who wrote these words, was born in 1847, the seventh of ten children of Newson and Louisa Garrett. Newson was a successful business man in Aldeburgh, Suffolk and was independent-minded enough to send his daughters away to school and later to back them in whatever they wanted to do.

In 1867, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, a member of Parliament and professor of political economy at Cambridge University. The marriage was happy, but Millicent knew how unequal she and her husband were in legal terms. One small incident emphasized the legal one-sidedness. Her purse was stolen and the thief was charged by the police with “stealing from the person of Millicent Fawcett a purse containing £1-18-6d (£1.92 and a half new pennies), the property of Henry Fawcett.”

Millicent knew about the struggle to enter the professions because her own sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was working to become one of the first women doctors registered in Britain. She knew about the struggle for education because Elizabeth’s friend Emily Davies was setting up the first college where women could study at university level. Millicent decided to contribute to the movement by working to get women the vote.

Millicent saw the very beginning of the movement for women’s suffrage. She heard John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and member of Parliament, speak at a meeting which “kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for women’s suffrage.” In 1866 Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett delivered a petition signed by 1399 women to John Stuart Mill and next year Millicent was in the House of Commons when he proposed giving the vote to women. “I heard Mill’s speech when he moved the Women’s Suffrage amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill; its terms were to omit the word ‘man’ from the enfranchising clause and substitute the word ‘person’.” The amendment was, however, defeated.

In July 1867 the Women’s Suffrage Committee formed itself and held its first London meeting in 1868: Millicent appeared on the platform and spoke. Over the years she toured parts of Britain once or twice a year and spoke many times.

Constantly the subject of women’s suffrage came up in Parliament, and again and again successive Governments held out against giving the vote to women. Henry died in 1884 and Millicent, who was now at the centre of all the activity in the women’s suffrage movement, moved to Gower Street in London, where she lived with her sister, Agnes.

During the 1880s the women’s movement split over the political question of which faction to support in the House of Commons but in 1897 all the local committees reunited into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies with Millicent as President.

In 1907 she led 4,000 women through Hyde Park in London: the weather was so bad it was called the Mud March. In 1908 she led 15,000 women from Hyde Park to a meeting in the Albert Hall. And in 1913 the NUWSS staged its very successful Pilgrimage, a march of Suffragists from all over England and Wales, converging on London on a given day.

All this activity ended with the beginning of World War I in 1914. But the War itself turned the voting system inside out. So many of the men who went away to fight lost their right to vote and so many women had played a crucial part in the war effort, that the Government had to draw up a new scheme for enfranchisement. This scheme gave women the vote on virtually the same basis as men.

Women over 30 voted in the first post-war General Election, in 1918. Ten years later, all women over 21 had the vote.

Millicent’s main desire had come about.

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