Following an 11-month campaign led by activist Caroline Criado-Perez and Telegraph Women (and endorsed by influential women including Emma Watson and J.K. Rowling), British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the first statue of a woman will be erected in Parliament Square. Joining the statuary ranks that already include Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela will be writer, activist, suffragist and political leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
Criado-Perez’s campaign kicked off last year with an open letter to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. She called on Khan to erect a statue of a woman in Parliament Square by February 2018, to honor the 100th anniversary of legislation granting limited suffrage to British women. As she wrote, it was a landmark victory, in which “women won the argument that our sex does not render us incapable of participating in the running of our country.”
Criado-Perez, who was also responsible for successfully campaigning to put Jane Austen on the new £10 note, was thrilled with the quick, decisive response. Prime Minister Theresa May also expressed her support, and the choice of Dame Fawcett, stating, “The example Millicent Fawcett set during the struggle for equality continues to inspire the battle against the burning injustices of today. It is right and proper that she is honored in Parliament Square alongside former leaders who changed our country.” The statue will be funded through a portion of the £5m fund set aside to celebrate the centennial of British women receiving limited suffrage.
Fawcett is best known for her work championing the right of women to vote in the United Kingdom. She came from a family of activists and reformers. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was the first known female doctor in Britain.
Fawcett began her suffrage work as a teenager. She wrote, “I cannot say I became a suffragist. I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.” Fawcett was further inspired after hearing John Stuart Mill introduce a suffrage amendment to a Reform Bill in 1867.
In 1897, Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)—the largest organization working for women’s suffrage at the time. She served as president for more than 20 years. Under Fawcett’s directive, NUWSS supported other causes as well, such as the abolition of the British slave trade, and formation of a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer War. She also championed women’s education, helping to found Newnham College, Cambridge.
The women’s suffrage movement suffered a huge blow when the Liberal government of 1901-1914 refused to give women the vote. The shock and disappoint served as a turning point that saw more militant suffragettes engage in direct action—such as breaking windows and taking part in hunger strikes while in jail. This willingness to resort to violence, however, caused a deep divide in the women’s movement. Fawcett and the NUWSS remained committed to achieving the vote through constitutional means, legal action and nonviolence.
Fawcett herself caused a divide in the NUWSS when she actively supported Britain’s participation in World War I. She explained her support in 1914, writing in the NUWSS journal “The Common Cause,” “Women, your country needs you…Let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim to it be recognized or not.”
Four years later, the “Representation of the People Act” passed, granting limited suffrage to women over 30, who owned their own homes or were the wives of householders, occupied property with an annual rent of £5 or were graduates of British universities.
When Parliament equalized the voting age in 1928, granting the same legal voting rights to women that men already possessed, Fawcett was there to witness the momentous occasion. She wrote in her diary, “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.”
Millicent’s legacy continues today through the women’s rights and gender equality charity, the Fawcett Society. The chief executive, Sam Smethers said, “Her contribution was great but she has been overlooked and unrecognized until now. By honoring her we also honor the wider suffrage movement.”