Earlier this month, Caroline Criado-Perez delivered a petition to parliament calling for the new statue in Parliament Square to be of women’s rights activist Millicent Fawcett. Kit Finnie tells us why.
1. She was instrumental in securing women’s right to vote.
First things first: Millicent Fawcett was a staunch defender of women’s rights, and from 1866, when she was only 19, she fought long and hard for equal suffrage. She believed that “Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” But…
2. She wasn’t a suffragette.
Millicent Fawcett was an intellectual, a feminist, a political essayist and a union leader, but she wasn’t a suffragette. She was a suffragist. Though she believed as strongly in equal suffrage as any of the Pankhursts, she wasn’t willing to condone militancy to get it.
Fawcett was the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1919, fighting tirelessly and lawfully for women’s right to vote.
Today, we look back at the formidable bravery of suffragettes with awe, and, though we certainly shouldn’t attempt to strip them of any credit, it’s fair to say the “Law-Abiding suffragists” (excellent tagline) get ever-so-slightly elided in our popular memory.
Yet the majority of women’s suffrage supporters erred on the side of the law: in 1913, the NUWSS had 50,000 members, compared to 2,000 in the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union.
As Fawcett herself said, “I can never feel that setting fire to houses and churches and litter boxes and destroying valuable pictures really helps to convince people that women ought to be enfranchised.” When you put it like that…
3. Her sister was also a total champ.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was an absolutely incredible woman. She was Britain’s first female doctor, the first female mayor, the first female magistrate, the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women and the first female dean of a British medical school. Phew.
Elizabeth was also the one who introduced her sister to the concept of women’s suffrage at 19 by taking her to see John Start Mill deliver a public lecture, so arguably we have her to thank for all this.
4. She was one half of a bona fide power couple.
Mill introduced Fawcett to several other prominent campaigners for equal suffrage, including her future husband, Henry Fawcett. They married in 1866, and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, enjoyed a marriage based on “perfect intellectual sympathy”.
They were that kind of wonderful 19th-century couple who hosted ‘salons’ where all their radical political friends came round to discuss, among other things, trade unionism, republicanism, proportional representation, and, of course, votes for women. Be still my beating heart.
5. She was the co-founder of Newnham College.
Fawcett was extremely sensitive to the reality of day-to-day existence as a woman, rather than relying on abstractions to support her cause. Instead of insisting her fellow suffragists cast away the domestic sphere – arguably the only place in which women had previously been allowed any value – she switched it around, asserting that the home should “count for more in politics”. She took the same approach when co-founding Newnham College in Cambridge.
Unlike Girton, the only other women’s college then active, which insisted women take the exact same courses as the men, Newnham allowed their students to work at their own pace for a year or so before taking on a degree. This acknowledged that most women in the UK didn’t have had the chance to be educated to a high standard, and ultimately meant that a wider population was granted access.
Like everything Fawcett did, it was a practice designed to benefit as great a number of people as possible, and was a victory of practicality over idealism.
6. She played a part in exposing the horrors of the Boer War.
The Boer War is an utterly shameful part of British history and saw the first British concentration camps. Emily Hobhouse, a tenacious welfare campaigner, was the first of many women to fight the bureaucracy that aimed to keep the facts of the concentration camps out of the public eye.
When she returned to Britain with a catalogue of the atrocities she’d witnessed, the government attempted to appease the people by commissioning Millicent Fawcett to lead an investigation. No woman had ever been given such responsibility during wartime.
Fawcett corroborated Hobhouse’s account. Tragically, the damage had already been done; a decade later the death toll in the camps was estimated to have been around 26,370, and around 24,000 of these were children and infants.
7. She campaigned for loads of causes alongside women’s suffrage.
Fawcett fought tirelessly for a huge number of ideals. She wanted to raise the age of consent, criminalise incest, end cruelty to children and prevent the introduction of legalised prostitution in India.
“When voting was finally equalised, in 1928, Fawcett was there in Parliament to witness it. She said, ‘It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on 20 May 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.’”
Alongside Josephine Butler, she also campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which allowed sex workers to be prosecuted for infecting their clients with STIs, but not the other way around (it was finally binned in 1886). Fawcett was utterly ahead of her time, attracted to radical ideas that we tend to take for granted today.
8. She wrote a Jane Austen-esque novel called Janet Doncaster.
…and The Spectator hated it. This is the best bit of the review:
He talks to her “as if he were oblivious of the fact that he was a man and she was a woman,” which is not a good mode of talking, and does not at all imply, as Mrs Fawcett seems to hint, a real respect for her intellect.
On the basis of that alone, I really want to read it.
9. But she was a beautiful writer.
Look here: “There are many excuses for the person who made the mistake of confounding money and wealth. Like many others, they took the sign for the thing signified.” I love this quote. I want a poster of it on my wall.
10. She was there to see voting equalised before her death.
When voting was finally equalised, in 1928, Fawcett was there in Parliament to witness it. She said, “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on 20 May 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.” That she saw 61 years of fiery political struggle as “good luck” above all else is a testament to her bravery, and willingness to dedicate an entire life to a worthy cause.
One sweetly ironic thing: the Act added five million women to the electoral roll, and made them the majority (52.7 per cent) of voters. Let’s claim our inheritance.
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Kit Finnie is based in North London. When she's not writing poems and stories, she likes to spend time being her own worst enemy. Proof here: @KitFinnie She blogs at kitfinnie.wordpress.com