Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the daughter Newson Garrett (1812–1893) and Louise Dunnell (1813–1903), was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1847. Millicent's father, was the grandson of Richard Garrett, who founded the successful agricultural machinery works at Leiston.
Millicent's father had originally ran a pawnbroker's shop in London, but by the time she was born he owned a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh. The business was a great success and by the 1850s Garrett could afford to send his children away to be educated.
When Millicent was twelve years old, her older sister, Elizabeth Garrett, moved to London in an attempt to qualify as a doctor. Millicent's visits to London to stay with Elizabeth and her other sister, Louise, brought her into contact with people with radical political views. In 1865 Louise took Millicent to hear a speech on women's rights made by the Radical MP, John Stuart Mill. Millicent was deeply impressed by Mill and became one of his many loyal supporters.
John Stuart Mill introduced Millicent to other campaigners for women's rights. This included Henry Fawcett, the Radical MP for Brighton. Fawcett, who had been blinded in a shooting accident in 1857, had been expected to marry Millicent's older sister Elizabeth Garrett, but in 1865 she decided to concentrate of her attempts to become a doctor. Henry and Millicent became close friends and even though she was warned against marrying a disabled man, fourteen years her senior, the couple was married in 1867.
On 4th April 1868 she gave birth to Philippa Fawcett. According to her biographer, Rita McWilliams Tullberg: "Philippa Fawcett's political and intellectual inheritance was formidable. Both her parents were active in the movement for the higher education of women. Not yet two years old, she reportedly toddled among the group of senior academics and their wives meeting in her parents' drawing-room in Cambridge in 1869 to plan the scheme of lectures for women that led, in time, to the foundation of Newnham College."
Over the next few years Millicent Fawcett spent much of her time assisting Henry Fawcett in his work as a MP However, Henry, an ardent supporter of women's rights, encouraged Millicent to continue her own career as a writer. At first Millicent wrote articles for journals but later books such as Political Economy for Beginners and Essays and Lectures on Political Subjects were published.
Millicent Fawcett joined the London Suffrage Committee in 1868. Although only a moderate public speaker, Millicent was a superb organiser and eventually emerged as the one of the leaders of the suffrage movement. She was so nervous before a speech that she was often physically ill. As a result she refused to make speeches more than four times a week.
She also campaigned against the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act: "In 1857 the Divorce Act was passed, and, as is well known, set up by law a different moral standard for men and women. Under this Act, which is still in force, a man can obtain the dissolution of the marriage if he can prove one act of infidelity on the part of his wife; but a woman cannot get her marriage dissolved unless she can prove that her husband has been guilty both of infidelity and cruelty."
Millicent also took a keen interest in women's education. She was involved in the organisation of women's lectures at Cambridge that led to the establishment of Newnham College. Millicent's only child, Philippa Fawcett, went to Newnham, where she was placed first in the mathematical tripos.
The political career of Henry Fawcett was also going well. In 1880 William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal government, appointed Fawcett as his Postmaster General. Fawcett, who introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, also used his power as Postmaster General to start employing women medical officers.
Henry Fawcett was taken seriously ill with diphtheria and although he gradually recovered, his political career had come to an end. Henry, severely weakened by his illness, died of pleurisy on 6th November 1884. It was claimed that "even decades later she would be visibly distressed by the mention of her husband's name."
Millicent now had more time for her own political career and became involved with the Personal Rights Association, which took an active role in exposing men who preyed on vulnerable young women. In 1886 Millicent Fawcett took part in a physical assault on an army major who had been pestering a servant of a friend of hers. According to William Stead: "They threw flour over his waxed moustache and in his eyes and down the back of his neck. They pinned a paper on his back, and made him the derision of a crowded street... in the sequel he was turned out of a club, and cut by a few lady friends - among them a young lady of some means to whom he was engaged at the time when he planned to ruin the country lass. Mrs Fawcett had no pity; she would have cashiered him if she could."
After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Millicent Fawcett was elected president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She believed that it was important that the NUWSS campaigned for a wide variety of causes. This included helping Josephine Butler in her campaign against the white slave traffic. Fawcett also gave support to Clementina Black and her attempts to persuade the government to help protect low paid women workers.
In October 1900, Emily Hobhouse, a member of the NUWSS formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children. An organisation set up: "To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations". Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund.
Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. Hobhouse argued that Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted.
Emily Hobhouse decided that she had to return to England in an effort to persuade the Marquess of Salisbury and his government to bring an end to the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. David Lloyd George took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps.
In August, 1901, the British government asked Millicent Fawcett to visit South Africa in order to investigate Hobhouse's complaints. While the Fawcett Commission was carrying out the investigation, the government published its own report. According to the New York Times: “The War Office has issued a four-hundred-page Blue Book of the official reports from medical and other officers on the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa. The general drift of the report attributes the high mortality in these camps to the dirty habits of the Boers, their ignorance and prejudices, their recourse to quackery, and their suspicious avoidance of the British hospitals and doctors.”
The Fawcett Commission confirmed almost everything that Hobhouse had reported. After the war a report concluded that 27,927 Boers had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about one in four of the Boer inmates, mostly children, died. However, the South African historian, Stephen Burridge Spies argues in Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics (1977) that this is an under-estimate of those who died in the camps.
Fawcett hoped that when Herbert Asquith became prime minister his Liberal government would give women the vote. However, once in power, he changed his mind on the subject. Despite Asquith's unwillingness to introduce legislation, Fawcett remained committed to the use of constitutional methods to gain votes for women. Fawcett, like other members of the NUWSS, feared that the militant actions of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) would alienate potential supporters of women's suffrage. However, Fawcett admired the courage of the suffragettes and was restrained in her criticism of the WSPU. In 1906 she joined with Lilias Ashworth Hallett in organizing the banquet at the Savoy to celebrate the release from Holloway Prison of WSPU prisoners.
Millicent Fawcett's sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, joined the WSPU. In December, 1911 she wrote to her sister: "We have the best chance of Women's Suffrage next session that we have ever had, by far, if it is not destroyed by disgusting masses of people by revolutionary violence." Elizabeth agreed and replied: "I am quite with you about the WSPU. I think they are quite wrong. I wrote to Miss Pankhurst... I have now told her I can go no more with them."
Although Millicent Fawcett had always been a Liberal, she became increasing angry at the party's unwillingness to give full support to women's suffrage. Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. Unlike other leading members of the Liberal Party, Asquith was a strong opponent of votes for women. In 1912 Fawcett and the NUWSS took the decision to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary elections.
Despite Asquith's unwillingness to introduce legislation, Fawcett remained committed to the use of constitutional methods to gain votes for women. Fawcett, like other members of the NUWSS, feared that the militant actions of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) would alienate potential supporters of women's suffrage. However, Fawcett admired the courage of the suffragettes and was restrained in her criticism of the WSPU.
Millicent Fawcett was upset when Louisa Garrett Anderson was sent to prison for taking part in the window-braking campaign. She wrote to her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: "I am in hopes she will take her punishment wisely, that the enforced solitude will help her to see more in focus than she always does."
Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although Fawcett supported the First World War effort she did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. Fran Abrams has pointed out: "She (Millicent Fawcett) would lose no fewer than twenty-nine members of her extended family, including two nephews."
Despite pressure from members of the NUWSS, Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: "She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union." At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: "I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace."
After a stormy executive meeting in Buxton all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned over the decision not to support the Women's Peace Congress at the Hague. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Margaret Ashton, Kathleen Courtney, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden, the editor of the The Common Cause.
Kathleen Courtney wrote when she resigned: "I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way."
According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "Mrs Fawcett afterwards felt particularly bitter towards Kathleen Courtney, whom she felt had been intentionally and personally wounding, and refused to effect any reconciliation, relying, as she said, on time to erase the memory of this difficult period."
In April 1915, Aletta Jacobs, a suffragist in Holland, invited suffrage members all over the world to an International Congress of Women in the Hague. Some of the women who attended included Mary Sheepshanks, Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Grace Abbott, Emily Bach, Lida Gustava Heymann, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Kathleen Courtney, Emily Hobhouse, Chrystal Macmillan, Rosika Schwimmer. At the conference the women formed the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WIL).
After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the NUWSS and WSPU disbanded. A new organisation called the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship was established. As well as advocating the same voting rights as men, the organisation also campaigned for equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to the discrimination against women in the professions.
Women had their first opportunity to vote in a General Election in December, 1918. Several of the women involved in the suffrage campaign stood for Parliament. Only one, Constance Markiewicz, standing for Sinn Fein, was elected. However, as a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat in the House of Commons. Later that year, Nancy Astor became the first woman in England to become a MP when she won Sutton, Plymouth in a by-election. Other women were also elected over the next few years. This included Dorothy Jewson, Susan Lawrence, Margaret Winteringham, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Mabel Philipson, Vera Terrington and Margaret Bondfield.
In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. Women could now become solicitors, barristers and magistrates. Millicent ceased to be active in politics and concentrated on writing books such as The Women's Victory (1920), What I Remember (1924) and Josephine Butler (1927).
A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. Many of the women who had fought for this right were now dead including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst.
Millicent had the pleasure of attending Parliament to see the vote take place. That night she wrote in her diary: "It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning."
Millicent Fawcett died on 5th August 1929.