Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) was born in Aldeburgh in Suffolk into a family of pioneering Victorian women. Her father, Newsom Garrett, was a prosperous businessman who built the Maltings in Snape.

Her older sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1937), like virtually all the women in the Garrett Family, was an active campaigner for the vote and became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England. Another of Millicent’s sisters, Agnes Garrett (1845-1935) and her cousin Rhoda Garrett (1841-82) were also trail blazers, setting themselves up as professional interior decorators and designers, R and A Garrett was the first design and decorating company run by women.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was educated briefly at Miss Browning’s Boarding School at Blackheath run by an aunt of the poet, Robert Browning. At the age of 19 she heard the radical MP, John Stuart Mill make the case for votes for women. She was too young to sign the 1866 suffrage petition but dedicated her life thereafter to the struggle for the vote and in 1891 wrote a new introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s great feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Millicent joined several women’s suffrage groups which were writing letters, holding meetings, and lobbying for the vote, becoming President of the largest, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, from 1897 until 1919. The NUWSS had some 450 branches in towns and villages throughout the country and around 40 in the Eastern counties. 400 students from Girton College and Newnham College marched in London with their banner proclaiming ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’, which can still be seen in Newnham College.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s sympathies had always been with the Liberal Party but she lost patience with the attitudes of Liberal politicians to women’s suffrage. When the Labour Party adopted the policy that it would refuse to support any franchise measure that did not include votes for women on the same terms as men, the NUWSS abandoned its position of political neutrality and advised its supporters to vote Labour. She lived to see her vision of a world in which men and women would vote alongside one another on equal terms become a reality when universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1928, a year before her death.

In 1867 she married the Liberal MP for Brighton, and later Hackney, Henry Fawcett, a strong supporter of votes for women. Henry Fawcett, who had lost his eyesight in a tragic shooting accident, became Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. He was an innovative Postmaster-General introducing Post Office Savings Accounts, the telegram, and the parcel post. Acting as Henry’s amanuensis, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was admitted into meetings to which women were usually denied access. It was a very happy marriage and their only daughter Philippa (1868 –1948) was born in 1868. The family moved into 18 Brookside in 1874. The meetings to set up a college for women took place in their drawing room, which regrettably no longer exists. After Henry’s death from pleurisy in 1884 Millicent, widowed at thirty-seven, and bequeathed £9,535 in his will, left Cambridge to live with Philippa and Agnes in London.

Newnham College was co-founded in 1871 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her supporter and friend, Henry Sidgwick, and other enlightened members of their social and intellectual circle who believed in higher education for women. Philippa was among its early students. She was a brilliant mathematician and Millicent had the pleasure of watching her daughter gain the highest examination marks and being declared ‘above the Senior Wrangler’ in the Mathematical Tripos in 1890. This, at a time when women at Cambridge were not awarded degrees by Cambridge University and were thought to have limited abilities in Mathematics and Science.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett believed that the vote could only be won through peaceable and lawful means. Her supporters were often referred to as the ‘constitutional suffragists’. The term ‘suffragette’ was invented by The Daily Mail to describe Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters in the Women’s Social and Political Union which was formed in Manchester in 1903. At first, Millicent welcomed the heightened interest in ‘the cause’ achieved by the suffragettes who used such tactics as chaining themselves to railings and dropping leaflets from the top of high buildings and generously acknowledged how successful the WSPU had been in putting votes for women at the centre of the political arena where her own supporters had failed. However, she grew dismayed as the suffragettes were driven to adopt violent methods.

In What I Remember (1924) Millicent Garrett Fawcett writes; ‘we were convinced that our job was to win the hearts and minds of our countrymen to the justice of our cause, and this could never be done by force and violence’. Yet once the NUWSS had passed a conference motion unequivocally condemning all acts of arson and damage to property she refused to succumb to demands to denounce every woman who broke a pain of glass or set fire to a pillar box. Instead she spoke publicly against force-feeding, the terrible conditions in prison, and the unfairness of the draconian sentences for relatively minor public order offences.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett presided over banquets to welcome released prisoners and praised the courage of women prepared to suffer, and even to die, for their beliefs. The words ‘courage speaks to courage everywhere’ on her statue in Parliament Square are taken from a speech after the death of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. The Great Pilgrimage of 1912, in which a number of Cambridge suffragists took part, followed the same routes across the country as medieval pilgrims and women wore sashes proclaiming that they were ‘law abiding women suffragists’.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the NUWSS underwent its greatest internal crisis. Many members saw support for war in any form as a vio-lation of fundamental suffragist principles which were based on peace, non-violence and co-operation. Millicent Garrett Fawcett called upon her supporters to participate in ‘well-thought out plans of national usefulness’, such as the humani-tarian relief work of the Scottish Women's Hospi-tals for Foreign Service set up by the suffragist Elsie Inglis, but she was faced with mutiny. Support for women’s war work prevailed as official NUWSS policy but there were many resignations.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is remembered for her lifelong campaigns for women’s suffrage, women’s education, and for equal citizenship when women were barred from entry into the professions and subjected to discrimination in many aspects of the law. But she supported causes which still have resonances for women all over the world. She was an opponent of ‘sweated labour’ and supported Clementina Black’s fight to protect low waged insecure women workers and secure trade union rights. She was entrusted by the government to report on conditions in South Africa and wrote a damming report of the use of torture in concentration camps in the Boer War. She championed the Personal Rights Association which exposed men who were sexually abusing children and exploiting vulnerable young women. Josephine Butler (1928), written with Ethel M. Turner, tells of Butler’s valiant battle to repeal the iniquitous Contagious Diseases Acts which permitted women suspected of prostitution to be arrested arbitrarily and subjected to humiliating internal examinations.

The legacy of this remarkable woman lives on in the unique collection of books held at the Women’s Library at the LSE (formerly the Fawcett Library). It is continued in the Fawcett Society which dates its origins to Mill’s petition and campaigns to remove the disadvantages that women experience in public life including employment, pensions, and the criminal justice system.

In 2018 Millicent Garrett Fawcett became the first woman to be honoured by a statue in Parliament Square, London and a Blue Plaque in her memory was erected at 18 Brookside in Cambridge.