Our May yarn is named for Millicent Fawcett, who is considered to have been instrumental in obtaining votes for women in the Representation of the People Act 1918.
Fawcett become interested in the cause at 19, after hearing a speech by the radical MP, John Stuart Mill, who was an early advocate of universal women’s suffrage. She was impressed by Mill’s practical support for women’s rights on the basis of utilitarianism.
Fawcett began her political career aged 22 at the first women’s suffrage meeting. As leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) she was a moderate campaigner, distancing herself from the militant activities of suffragettes like the Pankhursts and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She believed their actions were harming women’s chances of gaining the vote as they were alienating the MPs who were debating this topic and souring public attitudes towards the campaign. Despite the publicity given to the WSPU, the NUWSS, one of whose slogans was “Law-Abiding suffragists”) retained most support for the women’s movement. By 1905, Fawcett’s NUWSS had 305 constituent societies and almost fifty thousand members. In 1913 they had 50,000 members compared with the WSPU’s 2,000.
In Fawcett’s book,, Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement, she explains her disaffiliation with the more militant movement:
“I could not support a revolutionary movement, especially as it was ruled autocratically, at first, by a small group of four persons, and latterly by one person only … In 1908, this despotism decreed that the policy of suffering violence, but using none, was to be abandoned. After that, I had no doubt whatever that what was right for me and the NUWSS was to keep strictly to our principle of supporting our movement only by argument, based on common sense and experience and not by personal violence or lawbreaking of any kind.”
A statue of Millicent Fawcett by Gillian Wearing Parliament Square, was unveiled on 24th April 2018. Fawcett’s statue holds a banner quoting from a speech she gave following Emily Davison’s death during the 1913 Epsom Derby:
“Courage calls to courage everywhere”