Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the feminist act of collating her Selected Writings

Image of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in black and white, under text reading "Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings / Edited by Melissa Terras and Elizabeth Crawford"

By Professor Melissa Terras and Elizabeth Crawford. 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), the leading UK suffragist and campaigner of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is now an important figure in modern feminist culture. In 2018, a statue of her in Parliament Square was unveiled to celebrate 100 years of some women in the UK becoming entitled to the parliamentary vote. However, Fawcett’s wide-ranging contribution to society has become hard to understand, and no collection of her writings, including speeches, pamphlets, newspaper columns, and published letters, has previously been attempted.

Fawcett authored a vast amount of material in a range of often ephemeral sources, across a variety of topics, spending 61 years campaigning in the public eye. While her most renowned activities centred around the campaign for the Vote for Women, she was also a public campaigner for the provision of education for women, and regularly discussed feminist history; her love of literature (having her own attempt at fiction); advocated for purity and temperance; campaigned against employment of children; supported the British Army’s approach to the South African War; argued the Unionist cause against Home Rule for Ireland; and prioritised the role of suffrage organisations during World War I. To understand her contribution to these debates it is necessary to track down hundreds of articles, newspapers, books, manuscripts, and pamphlets – with many sources being scattered in various archives and special collections, in both the UK and beyond. Some were only available via purchasing on eBay or other online stores, and the digitised environment allowed us to locate various writings which were not part of her known bibliography, expanding our knowledge of Fawcett’s activities.

This ambitious (yet unfunded) plan to locate and synthesise all of Fawcett’s writings led to a collection of over 300 written pieces by Fawcett, from her time in the public eye. From these, a selection was made of 35 speeches and articles, and 22 artworks and photographs, indicating Fawcett’s full range of activities and concerns. We also quote over 100 of her further sources at length: telling the story of Fawcett’s contribution to modern society in her own words.

However, much with politician’s speeches today, Fawcett’s material is grounded in contemporary culture and references to society, including references to people, places, events, songs, plays, popular culture, and even jokes, that are very rooted in that specific time. Often these allusions and references seem remote to modern readers, and need quite some explaining. So, as well as providing the texts themselves, we provide detailed notes, for the full nuances to be pulled out. Doing so reveals a range of preferred reading material, as well as friends – and enemies – in the campaigns Fawcett supported. To undertake this, it was necessary to consult a vast array of digitised books, newspapers, and other historical sources in order to track down remembered (and half-remembered) quotes, identifying people that the audience would have immediately recognised who are now forgotten, and explaining the reaction to jokes, given their punchlines are now alien to us. Such an editorial approach is only possible with access to mass-digitised historical content, and it so happens that Fawcett’s activities coincide with much available digital content, given most Victorian publications are now out of copyright, and so are prioritised for digitisation. Fawcett’s writings themselves came out of copyright in 1999, 70 years after her death, and so do not need permission to republish her works, as they are now in the public domain. This lucky triangulation of digitisation and copyright made this range of material ideal for analysis.

As well as providing a unique insight into the public campaigns of an individual, Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings is an example of feminist digitisation practices: using the digital to enhance understanding of women’s lives and their histories, and expanding the remit of digitisation beyond institutionally supported digitisation (which has historically prioritised focussing on the lives of famous men). Our approach shows how digital archives can resurface feminist voices, biographies, and contributions to society. The digital also provides a vehicle to distribute our analysis: Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings is available for free download via open access from UCL Press. Millicent Fawcett’s words now belong to everyone.

Join GenderED and the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture, and Society for a book launch featuring editors Melissa Terras and Elizabeth Crawford in conversation with Professor Fiona Mackay online tomorrow, September 6 ’22 at 4 pm. Register here.