Life of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, co-founder of Newnham College, marked on centenary of the Representation of the People Act

Millicent Fawcett

In 1918, following years of campaigning, (some) women finally gained the right to vote. Millicent Fawcett, co-founder of Newnham College, devoted much of her life advocating for women’s suffrage. Today to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, Dr Gill Sutherland, Historian and Newnham Fellow, explains who Dame Millicent Fawcett was and the important role she played. 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929, DBE 1925) is the first woman to be celebrated with a statue in Parliament Square. It is a bronze modelled by Gillian Wearing, to be unveiled later this year, to mark a hundred years after the legislation first granting the vote to (some) women received the Royal Assent.

Millicent is now best known as the general of the suffragists, the women who campaigned by non-violent means to secure the vote. She came from a campaigning family however and her campaigning experience and interests were wide. She was a daughter of the determinedly feminist Newson Garrett, corn and coal merchant of Aldeburgh, and his wife, Louisa. Her sisters included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the pioneer doctor, and Agnes Garrett, the interior designer. In April 1867 Millicent married Henry Fawcett, the blind Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Radical Liberal MP for Brighton. Their only daughter, Philippa was born a year later.

The Fawcetts’ Cambridge drawing room was a key meeting place for the supporters of women’s education in Cambridge and the formation of a committee to organize Lectures for Ladies in Cambridge from 1870.  It rapidly became clear that Cambridge and its hinterland were too thinly populated for women who wanted to attend the lectures, to travel back and forth from home daily. Millicent encouraged the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, one of a handful of male members of the committee, to risk leasing a house in which some of the young women could reside. He in turn persuaded Anne Jemima Clough to come to take charge of this house; and from these beginnings grew Newnham College, in whose governance and affairs Millicent was always involved.

To Newnham in 1887 came Philippa Fawcett, to read Mathematics. In 1890 her cousin and her Garrett grandfather were in the gallery of the Senate House to hear with pride the announcement that in the Tripos examinations Philippa had been ranked ‘above the Senior Wrangler’, demonstrating, if demonstration were needed, that women could carry off Cambridge’s blue riband. After graduating Philippa taught Mathematics in Cambridge for a time.  Then working on reconstruction in South Africa following the Boer War, she developed her skills as an educational administrator. On her return from South Africa in 1905 she joined the Education Department of the London County Council, rising to become the most senior woman on the LCC staff, Assistant to Sir Robert Blair, the Education Officer.

Henry Fawcett died suddenly and untimely from pneumonia in 1884. Bereavement was hard to bear; but it did gradually free Millicent to expand her role in the campaign for women’s suffrage, which grew to dominate her life.  She played a major role in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), at first a complex and unstable coalition.  Millicent was among those working to tighten the organisational structure, becoming president in 1907; and she did her utmost to prevent and then to limit the rifts in this coalition and its campaigning activities which the growing militancy of the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union – the suffragettes – fed.   At the outbreak of war in 1914-15 Millicent also saw off efforts to take the NUWSS into the international pacifist movement, with some deft, if sometimes questionable, tactics. During the War NUWSS organisational structures and resources were devoted to supporting the war effort, paying special attention to the needs and support of a rapidly growing female workforce.

The granting of the vote to women property owners and graduates over 30 in the Franchise Act of 1918 represented a partial victory and quiet campaigning continued. Between 1920 and 1923 too work was going on to try to secure greater recognition for the students of the two women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton, in Cambridge. Only limited success was achieved within Cambridge; but between 1919 and 1922 a Royal Commission was considering the first-ever request for government funding from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In the Final Report the members of the Commission were divided about the treatment of the women – in effect, they sat on the fence. Yet legislation was necessary to give effect to the Commission’s principal findings, and there was some hope that either Commons or Lords could be persuaded to go further in improving the women’s position.

The token Cambridge woman on the Royal Commission had been Blanche Athena Clough, niece of Anne Jemima, fourth Principal of the College, and close friend of Philippa Fawcett. Throughout the complex manoeuvres, in Cambridge and in London, Thena Clough and Millicent Fawcett were in regular contact, Millicent drawing on her decades of political and lobbying experience. A few concessions were secured but not the full recognition the Cambridge women’s colleges desired. That had to wait until 1948, when only Thena and Philippa were alive to applaud it.  All three however were able to welcome the legislation of 1928 which extended the franchise to all women over 21, that is, on the same terms as men. The 90th anniversary of the Royal Assent to this legislation falls on July 2 2018.

In 1937 Newnham named its newest, just-completed  building Fawcett; and in 1953 the London and National Society for Women’s Service, which worked to improve employment opportunities for women, and of which both Philippa Fawcett and Thena Clough had been energetic members, was re-named the Fawcett Society.