Dangerous woman?

Gillian Murphy is Curator of Equality, Rights and Citizenship at LSE Library. Her background is in archives and she has worked with the Women’s Library collection for over ten years.

When I think about Millicent Garrett Fawcett, it is not the image of a dangerous woman that springs to mind. But, when I think about what Millicent achieved during her lifetime, then I think of the tireless, fearless campaigner who pursued a radical, dangerous idea, that of women’s enfranchisement, until it was achieved. This campaign lasted 62 years and overcame prejudice and organised obstruction, which required courage, energy and gritty determination.

Millicent was a member of a large family: one of the younger daughters of Newson and Louisa Garrett, and sister of Agnes Garrett and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. They lived in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and the family keenly debated political questions of the day. In July 1865, when Millicent and Agnes were visiting their elder sister, Louisa, in London, they were taken to hear one of John Stuart Mill’s election addresses. Millicent was greatly impressed by Mill and she later wrote, “This meeting kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for women’s suffrage.”

In the following year, the Reform Bill was under discussion and it was clear that women who wanted the vote should speak up. A small committee was formed including Elizabeth Garrett, to put a petition together. Millicent was 19 years old and too young to sign this petition (women had to be over 21). However, she worked very hard to collect signatures from others. In less than a month, 1,499 women’s signatures were collected and presented to Parliament by MP John Stuart Mill on 7 June 1866. Although this petition was unsuccessful, the Fawcett Society regard this moment as its foundation and the launch of an organised campaign for female enfranchisement.

On 20 May 1867, and now married to Henry Fawcett, Millicent sat in the Ladies’ Gallery to hear the debate on John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill. It was proposed that the word ‘man’ be changed for ‘person’ in the enfranchisement clause. Millicent wrote, “…the heavy brass trellis which then screened off these galleries, and their bad ventilation made them quite unnecessarily tiring and even exhausting, but the whole scene was new to me…It thrilled me to hear my sister and her successful efforts to open the medical profession to women referred to.” Again, Millicent was inspired by Mill’s speech.

Two months later, the first meeting of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage was held at Clementia Taylor’s house on Campden Hill and Millicent went along as its youngest recruit. At the early stages of this campaign, the suffragists believed that victory would be quick but they were politically innocent. Nevertheless, these women were bold pioneers: they were doing something that was very unusual for Victorian women to attempt to do. They also realised that public meetings would have to be held to advance their cause. This was seen as another extremely bold and dangerous activity for Victorian women to be involved in.

Millicent gave a short speech in her first public appearance in July 1869 at a public meeting in the Gallery of the Architectural Society in Conduit Street. She spoke again in 1870 in the Hanover Rooms and then delivered her first lecture on women’s suffrage in her husband’s constituency in Brighton a month later. In 1871, she embarked on a speaking tour in the west of England organised by Lilias Ashworth. Millicent did not particularly enjoy public speaking but had become very competent by 1884 and she was inundated with invitations to speak publicly. In a letter dated 19 February 1884 to Jane Cobden, Millicent said, “No one knows how speaking takes it out of me”. She was keen that new people should be found to speak for women’s suffrage because “I believe everyone can speak who has got anything to say. Of course they don’t like it, but no more do I.”

The suffrage campaign attracted educated women, which brought it to the notice of educated men. On 20 November 1908 Millicent was invited to speak at the Oxford Union Society. This was the first time a woman had spoken there in its 83 year history. The question for debate was ‘That in the opinion of this House the time has come when the Government should be urged to remove the electoral disabilities of women’. She was received with great enthusiasm and courtesy. This was a popular event and members were given permission to sit on the floor and gangways because the hall was so full. In putting forward her case for women’s suffrage, Millicent claimed that votes for women would probably result in higher wages for sweated workers, a benefit to the entire community. She said that women had proved themselves in local government which was a veiled tribute to her sister, Elizabeth, who had been elected Mayor of Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, earlier that year. Despite Millicent’s competent argument, the motion was defeated by 31 votes which, in an all-male assembly, was a considerable achievement.

Millicent was not one to show her feelings readily and rarely wrote about them. One event broke that pattern and was in response to the defeat of the Conciliation Bill in 1912. After walking up and down the Palace Yard, Westminster, with hundreds of other women, Millicent recounts, “I remember what I felt when I heard the bad news…. I felt that what I had been working for forty years had been destroyed at a blow; but I also felt what beavers feel when their dam has been destroyed, namely, that they must begin all over again, and build it up once more from the beginning.”

It took Millicent some time to recover from this political disappointment. By January 1913 Millicent put a request in the “Common Cause”, newspaper of the National Union of the Women’s Suffrage Societies, asking if she could rely on the ‘steadfastness and courage’ of the Union, of which she was President, to carry on the extra work entailed by the lengthy campaign. The Union responded by surprising her with a parade representing 400 societies at an evening reception following the Annual General Council meeting on 27 February 1913. Millicent was presented with a beautiful brooch encrusted in green, red and white jewels, the colours of the suffragists. On the reverse is a gold-lettered message in blue enamel ‘Millicent Fawcett 1913 Steadfastness and Courage’. Millicent was overcome by this show of loyalty. In her reply, she said would regard the jewel as a most precious treasure and would hand it down to her daughter, who would prize it equally.

It was five more years before the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women over the age of 30, and holding the requisite property qualification, the right to vote. It took another 10 years before women achieved electoral parity with men in the Equal Franchise Act which received Royal Assent on 2 July 1928. Millicent wanted to be present at this event because, almost 61 years before, she had heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill in 1867. She described herself as having had the great good fortune of seeing the campaign for women’s suffrage through from its small beginnings to ultimate success. Her personal determination played no small part in that achievement.

Was Millicent Garrett Fawcett a dangerous woman? Certainly not, but she was perceived as such by the conservative male, authoritarian political elite of her time because she dauntlessly pursued the idea of political gender equality to them. Her refusal to be thwarted and her sheer determination made her seem very dangerous indeed.


You can find out more about women’s suffrage at LSE Library.

An excellent starting point is Elizabeth Crawford’s ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement’.

For more about Millicent and suffrage come and see LSE Library’s exhibition Endless Endeavours: from 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition to the Fawcett Society open until 27 August.

Images of documents relating to the exhibition are available in this Flickr album.