Who was Millicent Fawcett?
The ‘most influential woman’ of the past century is being honoured with a statue in Parliament Square
Celebrated suffragist Millicent Fawcett has become the first woman to be honoured with a bronze statue in London’s Parliament Square.
Theresa May joined London Mayor Sadiq Khan this morning at the official unveiling of the monument, to mark the centenary of women winning the right to vote. Khan described the tribute as “long overdue”.
Fawcett’s statue was commissioned following a two-year campaign by feminist writer and activist Caroline Criado Perez, who also led last year’s successful effort to have Jane Austen commemorated on the new £10 note.
The unveiling comes two months after Fawcett was named he most influential woman of the past 100 years by BBC Radio 4 listeners.
So just who is she and what did she do?
Born in Suffolk in 1847, Fawcett was the eighth of ten children born into an affluent family. In 1858, she was sent a private boarding school in Blackheath, southeast London. Her older sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was also in the capital studying medicine, and would later become the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor.
Elizabeth introduced Millicent, or Millie, to English suffragist Emily Davies, who is said to have told them: “It is quite clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you [Elizabeth] open the medical profession to women. After these things are done, we must see about getting the vote. You are younger than we are, Millie, so you must attend to that.”
The young Fawcett was also influenced by the radical MP John Stuart Mill, an early (and rare male) advocate of universal women’s suffrage.
Impact on women’s rights
In 1897, Fawcett and a number of other now-famed figures of the women’s rights movement merged various local suffrage societies to create the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation insisted on using only non-violent tactics such as lobbying and petitions to persuade the government to grant women voting rights.
Among the other founding members of the NUWSS as Emmeline Pankhurst, widely regarded as another of the suffrage movement’s most influential - and controversial - figures.
Differences of opinion between Fawcett and the more militant Pankhurst came to a head in 1903, when Pankhurst left the NUWSS and formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which according to its own slogan was dedicated to “deeds, not words”, including hunger strikes, assault and arson.
Despite their opposing approaches, the two movements worked throughout the First World War to further the cause. In recognition of women’s efforts in the War, the government passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918.
This extended the right to vote to all men aged over 21 years old and to all women over 30 who held £5 of property - or had husbands who did - expanding the electorate by 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women.
In 1925, Fawcett was awarded a Damehood by King George V for her work, which included co-founding one of Britain’s first women-only colleges, Newnham at Cambridge University.
She continued to fight for women’s rights until her death at the age of 82 in 1929 - one year after universal suffrage was granted to women in the UK.