FAWCETT, Dame Millicent Garrett (1847-1929)
Plaque erected in 1954 by London County Council at 2 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1E 6DP, London Borough of Camden
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
Dame Millicent Garrett FAWCETT 1847-1929 pioneer of women's suffrage lived and died here
Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett was the leader of the peaceful campaign for women’s suffrage and the co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge. She lived at 2 Gower Street in Bloomsbury for 45 years, and it was while there in 1928 that she saw women finally achieve equal voting rights with men.
Inspired by the efforts of her elder sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, to study medicine, Fawcett co-founded Newnham Hall (later College) in Cambridge with the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in 1875. Like Emily Davies’s Girton Hall, it provided women with access to university education, though unlike Davies, Fawcett and Sidgwick did not insist that women sit the same exams as men.
Fawcett’s daughter, Philippa, would later go on to study at the college, where she achieved the highest score of all candidates in Cambridge University’s prestigious mathematical tripos – the first woman to do so.
LEADER OF THE SUFFRAGISTS
Fawcett gave her first public speech in favour of votes for women in 1869 and presided over the campaign leading up to the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, of which she was president from 1907 to 1919.
She took a pragmatic, constitutional approach to promoting the cause, and her attitude to the more militant suffragettes led by the Pankhursts was ambivalent. Fawcett was a more conservative figure, being opposed to Home Rule for Ireland and a strong supporter of the war effort in 1914–18. A moralist in personal matters, she once tore up a ‘mischievous and objectionable’ pamphlet advocating free love, though came to advocate divorce by mutual consent.
During the First World War Fawcett redirected the NUWSS towards the war effort– ‘Let us prove ourselves worthy of citizenship whether our claim is recognised or not’. She accepted the compromise in 1918 under which the vote was extended to women over 30 who met a property qualification.
AFTER THE VOTE
After this victory she retired from the presidency of the NUWSS, but still worked tirelessly in support of women’s rights. She campaigned, for instance, for women’s access to the legal profession and the civil service, for equal divorce rights and for the education of women and girls in India. She didn’t approve of Eleanor Rathbone’s ‘new feminism’, but in 1927 wrote a glowing account of the work of social reformer Josephine Butler. The complete enfranchisement of women on an equal footing with men in 1928 gave her great joy.
Millicent had moved to Gower Street in 1884 – following the death of her husband, Henry Fawcett, who had been a Liberal minister – and died there 45 years later. When she moved in – together with her daughter Philippa (1868–1948), a fellow suffrage campaigner – it was already the residence of her sister Agnes (1845–1935), who was well known as an interior designer, and was responsible for two decorated ceilings at the house. She proved a supportive and strong companion for the widowed Millicent, who, in her own words, ‘always loved the Gower Street house and all its associations’.