February 2018 brings with it the 100th anniversary of women over the age of 30 being granted the right to vote. As such, it was the first step towards all women being awarded equal status to men in political society. Without women like Millicent Garrett Fawcett, though, even the initial allowance might not have been so forthcoming, let alone equality for all.
In 1867, at the age of only 19, Millicent helped form the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She even served on its executive committee.
Born at Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1847, Millicent was one of ten children. She was most influenced by her elder sister Elizabeth, who in the early 1860’s became the first woman to qualify in Britain as a doctor.
It was also Elizabeth and her friend Emily Davies who in 1866 organised the first mass female petition to Parliament, asking for women to be given equal status to men. Although they were too young to sign the petition themselves, Millicent and her sister Agnes contributed significantly by going around the streets of Aldeburgh collecting signatures from the poor, ensuring they were represented as well as the areas wealthy women.
When she was 20, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, a radical Liberal MP for Brighton and professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge. Henry helped further her education, and within a year Millicent had published her first article, The education of women in the middle and upper classes. Later, in 1870, she wrote a second book, Political Economy for Beginners.
On 20 May 1867 Millicent was present in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons when John Stuart Mill MP campaigned for an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill. He wanted to replace the word ‘man’ with the word ‘person’, so that women could be included on the electoral register. His suggestion was defeated by 81 votes, but it inspired Millicent to campaign further for women’s right to vote.
In July 1869, at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to speak on a public platform, Millicent spoke at the first public meeting held by the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The Brighton Herald recorded her performance: ‘She is a lady of small stature, and of fragile but very pleasing appearance; perfectly collected in her manner, and with a very clear, distinct, emphatic delivery, not at times without a sense of humour.’
Millicent continued to engage in public addresses including one on 10th May 1872, when she addressed a packed central London suffrage meeting. She spoke against speeches that had been delivered in the House of Commons on 1st May which had been anti the Second Reading of the Bill for the Removal of the Electoral Disabilities of Women.
On 6th May 1880 Millicent made a very personal speech during a large London meeting. She spoke about how, when she and her husband were making their wills, they saw how unfair the law was. She realised that if her husband died she could not become their daughter’s guardian unless he had appointed her to the role. Nothing she owned, including the books she had written, legally belonged to Millicent in the eyes of the law. Everything automatically belonged to her husband.
When her husband did pass away several years later, Millicent took a break from public life, but by 1886 she was touring as a public speaker again. In 1888 she became honorary secretary of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. By this time, more and more suffrage groups were forming across the country, and Millicent began to help the different groups unite; In 1893 she became the president of the Special Appeal Committee, which ensured all suffrage societies had the same goal.
Millicent continued to campaign until 1896, when she presided over a meeting which would, the following year, lead to the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Ten years later she became the group’s president. This was a position she held until 1918, when she finally saw her life’s ambition realised, securing the first votes for women, and giving her a place in social and political history as the person most responsible.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.