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Suffolk and the Suffragettes

Suffolk and the Suffragettes

Did you know that Suffolk was home to two of the leading figures of the Women’s Suffrage movement? Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the daughter Newson Garrett and Louise Dunnell, was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1847. Millicent’s father had originally ran a pawnbroker's shop in London, but in 1841 he purchased a corn and coal warehouse in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. The business was a great success and by 1850 Garrett was a rich man.

While visiting a friend in London in 1854, Millicent’s eldest sister, Elizabeth Garrett, met Emily Davies, a young women with strong opinions about women's rights. Davies introduced Elizabeth to other young feminists living in London.
In 1859 Elizabeth met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to qualify as a doctor. Elizabeth decided she also wanted a career in medicine. Her parents were initially hostile to the idea but eventually her father agreed to support her attempts to become Britain's first woman doctor.



When Millicent was twelve years old Elizabeth moved to London to pursue her desire to qualify as a doctor. It may seem amazing to us now but Garrett tried to study in several medical schools but they all refused to accept a woman student. Garrett therefore became a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and attended lectures that were provided for the male doctors. After complaints from male students Elizabeth was forbidden entry to the lecture hall!

However Garrett discovered that the Society of Apothecaries did not specify that females were banned for taking their examinations. In 1865 Garrett sat and passed the Apothecaries examination. As soon as Garrett was granted the certificate that enabled her to become a doctor, the Society of Apothecaries changed their regulations to stop other women from entering the profession in this way. Only with the financial support of her parents was Elizabeth Garrett able to establish a medical practice in London.

Millicent's visits to London to stay with Elizabeth and her other sister, Louise, brought her into contact with people with radical political views. In 1865 Louise took Millicent to hear a speech on women's rights made by the Radical MP, John Stuart Mill. Millicent was deeply impressed by Mill and, like her sister Elizabeth, became one of his many loyal supporters.

in 1865 Elizabeth Garrett joined with her friends Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to form a woman's discussion group called the Kensington Society. The following year the group organized a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.

Although Parliament rejected the petition, the women did receive support from Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett. Elizabeth became friendly with Fawcett, the Radical MP for Brighton,who had been blinded in a shooting accident in 1857, but she rejected his marriage proposal as she believed it would damage her career. Fawcett later married Millicent Garrett in 1867.

For the next few years Millicent Fawcett spent much of her time assisting Henry Fawcett in his work as a MP. However, Henry, an ardent supporter of women's rights, encouraged Millicent to continue her own career as a writer. At first Millicent wrote articles for journals but later books such as Political Economy for Beginners and Essays and Lectures on Political Subjects were published.
Millicent Fawcett joined the London Suffrage Committee in 1868. Although only a moderate public speaker, Millicent was a superb organiser and by the early 1880s she had emerged as the one of the leaders of the suffrage movement. Millicent also took a keen interest in women's education. She was involved in the organisation of women's lectures at Cambridge that led to the establishment of Newnham College.

The political career of Henry Fawcett was also going well. In 1880 William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal government, appointed Fawcett as his Postmaster General. Fawcett, who introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, also used his power as Postmaster General to start employing women medical officers.

Henry Fawcett was taken seriously ill with diphtheria, and, severely weakened by his illness, died of pleurisy in 1884. Millicent now had more time for her own political career and after the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, she was elected president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
Millicent Fawcett believed that it was important that the NUWSS campaigned for a wide variety of causes. This included helping Josephine Butler in her campaign against the white slave traffic. Fawcett also gave support to Clementina Black and her attempts to persuade the government to help protect low paid women workers.

Although Millicent Fawcett had always been a Liberal, she became increasing angry at the party's unwillingness to give full support to women's suffrage. Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. Unlike other leading members of the Liberal Party, Asquith was a strong opponent of votes for women. In 1912 Fawcett and the NUWSS took the decision to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary elections.

Despite Asquith's unwillingness to introduce legislation, Fawcett remained committed to the use of constitutional methods to gain votes for women. Fawcett, like other members of the NUWSS, feared that the militant actions of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), set up by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, would alienate potential supporters of women's suffrage. However, Fawcett admired the courage of the suffragettes and was restrained in her criticism of the WSPU.

Her sister Elizabeth joined the WSPU in 1908, at the age of 72. Later that year she was lucky not to be arrested after she joined with other members of the WSPU to storm the House of Commons. However, Elizabeth left the WSPU's in 1911 as she objected to their arson campaign. Her daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, remained in the WSPU and in 1912 was sent to prison for her militant activities, along with Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Christable and Sylvia.

Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, the NUWSS declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although Fawcett supported the First World War effort she did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.

In 1916 Asquith finally changed his mind on women’s suffrage. Recognising their contribution to the way effort, he said he could no longer justify denying them the right to vote. Fawcett led a delegation to Lloyd George (Asquith’s successor) the following year to ensure that pledges would be kept. The Representation of the People Bill became law in February 1918.

After the war Millicent concentrated on writing books such as The Women's Victory (1920), What I Remember (1924) and Josephine Butler (1927). She died died in 1929.

Elizabeth in the meantime had married James Anderson in 1871, a successful businessman and the financial adviser to Elizabeth’s East London Hospital. Like other feminists at the time, Elizabeth Garrett retained her own surname. Although James Anderson supported Elizabeth's desire to continue as a doctor the couple became involved in a dispute when he tried to insist that he should take control of her earnings.

Elizabeth had three children, Louisa, Margaret who died of meningitis, and Alan. This did not stop her continuing her medical career and in 1872 she opened the New Hospital for Women in London, a hospital that was staffed entirely by women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the woman who inspired her to become a doctor, was appointed professor of gynecology.

In 1902 Garrett Anderson retired to Aldeburgh. Garrett Anderson continued her interest in politics and in 1908 she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh - the first woman mayor in England. She died in 1917.
Suffolk and the Suffragettes

The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading campaign for gender equality. We trace our roots directly to NUWSS, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett whose dedicated campaigning won women the vote in 1918.
We make a difference today by campaigning for legislative change, influencing practice, and empowering women and men. We campaign for the right to equal pay, fair treatment in the workplace, an equal voice in decision making, freedom from stereotypes and freedom from violence, harassment and objectification. Because we believe that when women are able to realise their potential, the benefits will be felt across society.

Find out more about our work at Fawcett Society

Got something to add to this article, or know some interesting facts about Suffolk? Please let us know by contacting suffolkguides.admin@suffolktouristguide.com.

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