Millicent Garrett was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk on 11 June 1847 and died in London on 5 August 1929. The Garretts were a wealthy business family; their political sympathies were strongly liberal and the milieu was a feminist one. There was strong family support for Elizabeth, one of her older sisters (afterwards Mrs Garrett Anderson), when she faced considerable obstacles in her (ultimately successful) attempt to obtain professional qualification as a medical practitioner. Millicent’s formal education ended at the age of fifteen, and in 1867 she married Henry Fawcett, the blind Professor of Economics at Cambridge and Liberal MP for Brighton. A friend of John Stuart Mill, whose The Subjection of Women appeared in 1869, Henry Fawcett was one of the leading Parliamentary spokesmen for women’s suffrage. It was a cause with which Millicent Garrett Fawcett was also associated, especially in her role as President of the National Suffrage Societies between 1897 and 1918. She too acknowledged Mill’s influence, though shortly before Mill’s death there was a difference of opinion between them which was mainly concerned with the means by which the objective of women’s suffrage might best be achieved.
Both before and after her husband’s death in 1884, she was also involved in a variety of other reforming and political movements. These included issues of women’s employment (where, in the light of the experience of the First World War, she modified her earlier position on the role of the market in setting wages for women’s work in favour of equal pay for equal work), their access to higher education and the campaign to secure for married women the legal right to their own property. She was the author of numerous articles, of texts in political economy published in the 1870s and of a volume of reminiscences in 1924. She was made a DBE in 1925.
It is for her leadership of the constitutional section of the women’s suffrage movement that she is best remembered. She became a member of the first women’s suffrage committee in 1867 and made her first public speech on the subject the following year. For Fawcett, women’s suffrage was an important precondition for other reforms and improvements in the status of women in an almost exclusively masculine state. But she also believed that, mainly through their domesticity, ‘women bring something to the service of the state different from that which can be brought by men’ (‘The Appeal against Female Suffrage’, p. 90). These were the broad tenets of the suffragists – those who sought to achieve votes for women on the same terms as men by means of rational argument conducted through speeches and pamphlets and pressure on politicians by petitions. Such constitutional and legal methods set the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies apart from the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in 1903 by Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter, whose members, known as suffragettes, engaged in more sensational and violent action, especially against property.
Both organizations suspended their campaigning on the outbreak of the First World War, but Millicent Fawcett was a prominent lobbyist when in 1916 a conference was called by the Speaker of the House of Commons to examine a variety of issues concerning the Parliamentary franchise. The subsequent legislation – the Representation of the People Act 1918 – extended the vote to women over the age of thirty with a basic property qualification. Ten years later, and only one year before her death, Millicent Fawcett was in the gallery of the House of Lords to witness the final reading of the Equal Franchise Bill, which finally made male and female voters equal before the law at a uniform age of twenty-one.