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Women’s Week: Millicent Fawcett - a Suffolk campaigner who helped change history for UK women

PUBLISHED: 10:43 15 January 2018

Aldeburgh-born suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Aldeburgh-born suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett

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The first statue of a woman will soon be unveiled in Parliament Square. A woman who helped win the vote. A woman from Suffolk. Steven Russell looks at her life and legacy.

Millicent Fawcett (fourth from the left, in the bottom row) at a Suffrage Alliance Congress in London in 1909Millicent Fawcett (fourth from the left, in the bottom row) at a Suffrage Alliance Congress in London in 1909

Suffolk should be so proud of Millicent – born in the county, a driving force in the battle to win the vote for women, and honoured by a UK campaign group bearing her name.

Millicent Garrett was just 19 years old when, in 1866, she collected names on a petition seeking the vote for women. At 22, she gave her first speech.

The Suffolk businessman’s daughter went on to lead the constitutional suffrage campaign (working with the more militant suffragettes but choosing non-violent tactics less likely to alienate people).

Millions of British women got the vote in 1918 (well, those aged over 30 and meeting certain conditions). We had to wait until 1928 before the Equal Franchise Act finally gave women the vote on the same terms as men.

Millicent died the following year, but with her major battle won.

Soon a bronze statue of her will be unveiled in London. It will stand among 11 men, such as Prime Minsters Sir Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli, and international figures Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.

The idea came from writer and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who while running through Parliament Square on International Women’s Day, 2016, realised all the statues were of males. A petition to add a woman attracted about 85,000 names, and the support of JK Rowling. And, importantly, the Mayor of London.

The statue’s designed by Gillian Wearing. Millicent has a placard saying “Courage calls to courage everywhere” – a reference to a speech she made following the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson, 
killed by a horse at the Epsom Derby.

Caroline chose Millicent “because she has been largely forgotten despite playing a huge role in securing women the vote”. She wanted the statue to have gravitas, “like the men who would stand around her in Parliament Square. I wanted her to have purpose. I wanted her to be middle-aged – a nose-thumb at a society that tells women to keep out of sight once the wrinkles start showing”.

Dame Millicent is shown as a 50-year-old – her age when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was founded. Around the plinth are the images and names of 52 women (plus a couple of men) who also fought for the vote.

It was in 1865 that Millicent’s sister Louisa, and Louisa’s husband James, took her to hear a speech by MP John Stuart Mill, who was arguing for the vote to be extended to working men and to women. Millicent said later that she was a suffragist “from my cradle, but this meeting kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for it”.

One of Mill’s supporters was Liberal politician Henry Fawcett, who proposed to Millicent in 1866. They married the following year. In 1868 she joined the London Suffrage Committee, and by the early 1880s was a leader of the movement.

In 1897, local women’s suffrage societies united as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, under Millicent, who was president until 1919. By 1913, the NUWSS had 50,000 members, the suffragists opting for peaceful tactics such as marching and lobbying decision-makers.

That year, she was awarded a brooch engraved with “For Steadfastness and Courage”.

Though Millicent died in 1929, her spirit endures. The London Society for Women’s Suffrage was renamed The Fawcett Society in 1953. Chief executive Sam Smethers says: “A statue of her in Parliament Square will be a fitting tribute. Her contribution was great but she has been overlooked and unrecognised until now. By honouring her we also honour the wider suffrage movement.”

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