Great Men and One Exceptional Woman

This post is partly based on a chapter I wrote for the Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought (edited by Kirsten Madden and Robert Dimand, 2019). Here is a link to the working paper version. It was first edited and published on scatterplot by Dan Hirschman in septembre 2017.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett will be honored with the first-ever statue of a woman in Parliament Square, Westminster, London. And the first created by a woman artist. Following recent additions—Lloyd George and Mandela in 2007, Gandhi in 2014—the statue will stand among eleven great men in a square that symbolizes British democracy. The announcement follows a heated debate over which women’s rights activist should be honored: suffragist Fawcett, or suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst? The debate over which individual to distinguish echoes the debates over the efficacy of political strategies, opposing the moderate constitutionalist suffragist movement led by Fawcett to Pankhurst’s “militant” strategies of the suffragettes—setting fire to public and private property, chaining themselves to railways, disrupting political events, and destroying paintings at the National Gallery.

Many agree that having a statue of a woman in Parliament Square is a good thing, backed by a long list of studies on the effect of the low representation of women in public space and in history. But the history of women’s fights for their rights, back in the 1880s as now, is crowded with women with different styles, intellectual journeys and political commitments. We definitely need more heroines, but what does the choice of just one tell us?

Millicent Fawcett (number 4 from left, bottom row) at a Suffrage Alliance Congress, London 1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This question echoes the history of the suffrage movement’s diversity at the intersection of practices informed by power, class, race, and gender divisions. Exploring Fawcett’s life, and especially her contribution to political economy, also shows how this diversity is even revealed within individual life course changes.


Pankhurst already has her statue, located only 0.3 miles south of Parliament Square. Erected in 1930, it represents the suffragette, along with a medallion of her daughter Christabel. Opposing Fawcett’s moderation and gradualism, the “Militants” led by Pankhurst chose political violence as a means to win the vote. Three years ago, a campaign to move the Pankhurst’s memorial to a more prominent place received support from then PM David Cameron, former Tory leader Andrea Leadsom, and the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd. In 2016, the Pankhurst campaign confronted with the Fawcett statue campaign launched by writer and activist Caroline Criado-Perez, and supported by the Fawcett society. A proposal to reunite two statues, one of Fawcett and one of Pankhurst, failed last December. Meanwhile; another campaign is still running to erect a statue for Sylvia Pankhurst, the other daughter of Emmeline. A socialist and a pacifist, she was excluded from the Pankhurst memorial, except for the “prison brooch” her mother is wearing, and which she designed. A campaign asked for a statue to be built in Clerkenwell Green, North London—“the headquarters of republicanism, revolution and ultra non–conformity”.

Christabel Pankhurst being modeled by Jean Tussaud, 1908. From The Suffragettes in Pictures, edited by Diane Atkinson, London: Museum of London, p.11.

The debate over statues materializes diverging notions of feminism. For it is not Fawcett’s leadership ability, organizational skills, and impact on 20th century politics that are challenged. The question, rather, is who the feminist on the square should be, if one only is allowed. The question echoes the history of the suffrage movement itself.

Westminster City council hopes the monument will be ready for the centenary of the 1918 People Representation Act that gave women the franchise. The granting of the vote became seen as a reward to women’s effort during the war. The exceptionality of women’s contribution to the war is a recurrent element in the historiography of women’s suffrage. The sacrifice of the soldiers during WWI was also part of the rationale: the Act notably abolished property requirements for almost 6 millions men, among them many “deserving” soldiers. Gender added to the class dimension of the debate: the vote was opened only to those women over 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property or graduates from British Universities.

The Women’s Library (formerly the Fawcett Library) collection and the Women’s Work collection at the Imperial War Museum, among other collections, testify to the complexity of the fight for the vote, in relation (and sometimes opposition) to other social movements. As is well documented, the Labor movement was split between those who opposed the “vote for women” and those who aimed at building a feminist socialism. The history of women’s contribution to Trade Unionism is part of this story. Also documented but less known, British feminism—as the entire society—was then also infused with debates about eugenics and imperial culture. Feminists such as Annie Besant and Eleanor Rathbone, for example, fought for the rights of women in the colonies. Other names can be added. In the end, the statue controversy shows how difficult it is to provide a (long awaited) official recognition to such a multifaceted movement with a single statue. But, in the end, it is Fawcett who was chosen.

Do We Need Another Hero?

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) is remembered for her early commitment to “the Cause” and as the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) between 1897 and 1914. But she was also an early contributor to political economy. Few economists know about her work—the notable exception is Kenneth Arrow—as it is the case for many contributions by women in the history of economics.

Her political economy and philosophy were shaped through her interactions with John Stuart Mill. Mill introduced her to Henry Fawcett, a blind Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University and a Liberal MP. After tying the knot, Millicent Fawcett worked with her husband on the revision of his own Manual of Political Economy. But at the same time, she also published two best-selling books: Political Economy for Beginners, published 1870, which underwent more than 10 editions and Tales in Political Economy, published 1874. Fawcett was a public figure that fits in the tradition of female knowledge brokers in economic thought, other examples include Harriet Martineau, Jane Marcet, and Clémence Royer. Sometimes characterized as the “most eminent female political economist”, Fawcett was suggested as a possible member of the Political Economy Club, and but was eventually turned down by Mill.

A critical shift in Fawcett’s intellectual development was her change of mind on the “equal pay for equal work” issue. The formula “equal pay for equal work” refers to fair conditions of work, meaning equal (hour or piece) rates or equal scales of payment for men and women. She is one of the first to theorize the economic effects of what we know called occupational segregation and wage discrimination. Because of discrimination women are crowded in the least productive occupations. Hence, widening women’s opportunity in terms of training, rather than claiming equal pay or “organizing women’s labor”, would increase women’s wages. Fawcett initially opposed the principle of “equal pay for equal work” on the grounds that women would lose the competition game because of their lack of training and education; therefore, she campaigned instead for women’s education (along with her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first women to qualify as a physician in the UK), and the opening of professions to women. Millicent Fawcett changed her mind in favor of equal pay in the wake of what she perceived as a dramatic increase of women’s productivity, which WWI helped to “discover”.

Fawcett’s approach to Trade Unions and State regulation likewise evolved throughout her life. In the 1890s, she denounced the Trade Unions’ exclusion of women. Two decades later, she recognized the role of the Labor movement in the improvement of women’s labor conditions and even endorse the demand for minimum wages legislation—in contradiction with her younger appeal to the Classical Liberal doctrine of Laissez-Faire. Closed to the Liberal party, she made an alliance with the Labour Party for the 1910 election. This strategic move alienated many fellow feminists such as Eleanor Rathbone.

Other subjects of dissension within the feminist movement include the family. Fawcett opposed any law regulating the private sphere, and especially the “family allowance scheme” (child benefit), a central demand of the “new feminists” such as Rathbone. Fawcett never change her mind on this subject, her attachment to Victorian values of individual responsibility remained. Rathbone, however, succeeded Fawcett as leader of the NUWSS in 1919 and she is remembered as the inspiration behind many of Beveridge’s welfare state policies. Fawcett’s final years were devoted to campaigning for the extension of suffrage beyond property requirements. She died a year after unconditional equal franchise was granted to women in 1928.

The current debate on whether the wrong feminist or the wrong sculptor were chosen highlights how the history of the suffrage movement was as much about civil rights at the intersection of gender, class and race as it was about women’s vote. Further, Fawcett’s life, actions and writings exemplify the conceptual and strategic difficulties of “finding in liberalism a complete approach to feminism” (Caine 1993). If Fawcett represents one conception of feminism, the kind of ideas she stood for also changed over her lifetime.

Outlining this diversity while explaining (or writing history) is already difficult (for a recent try see Gender and the Great War). But, as recent debates over confederate statues in the US have revealed, statues do not merely aim at explaining history, but at representing it. Choosing who to honor with a statue, who will “represent” a large piece of political history—who will be the exceptional woman standing among great men on a famous square—is not just an intellectual choice, it is also a political statement. The difficulty of representing a diverse movement and the criticism of the choice of Fawcett at least forces us to have crucial debates on how to embody the pluralism of our society.


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