Today we are happy to bring you a guest post from Elizabeth Hill-Scott of smarthistoryblogging.com.
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save
time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love.
A lifelong history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches
entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start or grow a successful niche blog in the fascinating field
She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK
politicians and public figures.
Millicent Fawcett & Elizabeth Garrett Anderson: Two Determined Sisters. Two Extraordinary Lives
Aldeburgh, Suffolk is renowned for its picturesque stony beaches, catch-of-the-day and long queues for the fish and chip shop. It is close to where I grew up, and in the 19th Century, was home to two remarkable people, Millicent and Elizabeth Garrett. They were sisters who would go on to significantly advance the cause of women’s rights in Great Britain.
Shaped by a Free-Thinking Childhood Home
Elizabeth moved to Aldeburgh when she was five, with Millicent born there in June 1847. I can just imagine the girls, along with their siblings, eating ice cream and running away from big waves just as me and my sisters did.
Now, whilst many trailblazers rise from the ashes of hardship and pain, Elizabeth and Millicent’s story was not one of those. Born into privilege, their father, Newsom (who wasn’t born into privilege, just worked hard) was an uber-wealthy merchant and shipowner. He, and their mother Louisa, positively encouraged free thought, opinion, and an interest in political issues for both their sons and daughters.
The direction Elizabeth and Millicent took was undoubtedly assisted by such a free-thinking homelife. Considering the date, another set of wealthy parents could have destined the girls for marriage, family and not much else despite their clear intellect and ability.
The Sisters’ Early Influencers
Millicent said in later life she didn’t become a suffragette, she was born a feminist “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government.”
But, hearing John Stuart Mill, address an election rally, when she was just 17 years old, took her deeper into the political world. By age 19, she was attending and speaking at the first meeting of The National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
I’m sure Millicent was influenced by her older sister Elizabeth, who as a teenager would provide at-home lectures to her siblings about political affairs. Her passion for women’s rights was ignited after being introduced to campaigner Emily Davies, and they became lifelong friends.
It’s less clear when the first spark was ignited in Elizabeth to pursue a medical career beyond that of a nurse. We do know whilst at boarding school, a then 13-year-old, was appalled at the lack of science and maths classes being taught and that she was inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell, an English woman who had emigrated to America, had achieved her medical degree at The University of Geneva.
Remarkable Achievements Packed with Firsts
Both sisters, throughout their lives, were personally remarkable and brought major societal change to Great Britain.
- In the early days, co-ordinating the direction, focus and demands of the women’s movement was not easy. Millicent helped navigate sometimes factious women’s groups into The National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS) becoming its leader in 1907. The NUWSS peaked at over 50,000 members
- She was the first woman to ever speak at The Oxford Union
- In 1917, she led a delegation to Prime Minister, Lloyd George which brought about a new Representation of the People Act. It would include a clause allowing women over 30 to vote
- In her 70s, she was twice Vice-President of The League of Nations, and Her Majesty the Queen made her a Dame of the British Empire.
- In 1865 she helped set up The Kensington Society, to petition the government and allow women to vote and became the first practising physician in England
- In 1870, she became the first woman in France to gain a medical degree
- In 1873 she gained membership of the British Medical Association (BMA)
- She co-founded The London School of Medicine for Women, the only teaching hospital in Britain to offer courses for women. She became Dean in 1883
- In her ‘retirement’ back in Aldeburgh, Elizabeth became the town’s Mayor and the first female Mayor in England
Lives directed by determination and pragmatism
Both sisters, lives are littered with examples of their shared characteristics of pragmatism, patience, and relentless determination.
- Millicent understood change to suffrage, as had been the case for men, would need to be gradual. Parliamentarians and Government’s respected her and slowly began to listen
- Elizabeth learnt French so she could take a medical degree at The University of Sorbonne, Paris
- Millicent put country before cause when The First World War broke out saying “Let us prove ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim be recognised or not.”
- Elizabeth, refused entry into medical school, did not give up but enrolled as a nursing student so she could work the system from the inside.
Both sisters, as campaigners for women’s rights, were not hateful or extreme in their views. Millicent did not think men and women were the same and certainly did not want women to be “an imitation of men.” She simply believed if women paid taxes, they should vote and if laws in parliament applied to men and women, they should shape them.
Both women struggled with the militant and violent actions of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which Millicent believed made women look unfit to vote. And, even though at 72, Elizabeth joined their ranks and stormed The Houses of Parliament, she left as their tactic of arson increased. For both, they felt it was a battle for hearts and minds that could not be won through violence.
The men who understood them
Although in no way diminishing their achievements, it would be remiss not to recognise the men in Elizabeth and Millicent’s lives who did not seek to crush their ambitions or causes but actively encouraged them.
Firstly, their father, Newsom, was a huge influence in Elizabeth’s life. He trawled Harley Street trying to help her get places as a medical student. He then backed her financially to open her own practice at Upper Berkeley Street, London as she was not allowed to take up a post in a hospital.
Finally, when The Society of Apothecaries, refused to recognise the less traditional route Elizabeth had been forced to take to gain her qualifications, he threatened to sue them. (They relented then changed their Charter so it couldn’t happen again. Nice.)
Both sisters also got married. Elizabeth, having gained a medical degree by this point, married James Skelton Anderson, co-owner of The Orient Steamship Company and financial adviser to the East London Hospital in 1871.
In April 1865, Millicent met Henry Fawcett whom she married two years later. He was the Liberal Member of Parliament for Brighton, 14 years her senior and had been blinded in an accident. He was also a friend of Elizabeth’s, despite her having turned down his marriage proposal in the past.
Millicent supported Henry, in a serious way, with his parliamentary duties. At the same time, she ran two households, wrote articles about women’s education, two novels and a textbook, Political Economy for Beginners. Henry supported his wife’s views of suffrage even if it put him at odds with the Prime Minister. It must have been shattering, therefore, when Henry died suddenly in 1884, leaving Millicent a widow at just 34.
It is refreshing to see at a time when women were seen as the property of their husbands, neither their father nor husbands sort to limit their wives’ pursuits, even after they had had children. Millicent had a daughter, Phillipa and Elizabeth, three children Louisa, Alan, and Margaret.
A legacy they both lived to see
Millicent described the move to allow women over thirty the vote in 1919 as the happiest day of her life. So, she must have been ecstatic to have lived just long enough to witness the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave the vote to all men and women over 21. Millicent died on 5th August 1929 in London.
For Elizabeth, she got to see an Act of Parliament in 1876, which permitted women to enter the medical profession, and although it would be 12 years after her, more women admitted to the British Medical Association.
Elizabeth died on 17th December 1917, and sadly did not get to share the happiest day of her sister’s life. At her funeral, in St Peter’s Church, Aldeburgh, it was reported the Reverend noted. Of her it might truly be said: “Her works do follow her” and “her works praise her in the gates.”
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