Principles into practice: Millicent Fawcett

Millicent FAwcettLast month, the London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that a statue of Millicent Fawcett by the Turner prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing will be erected on Parliament Square in 2018, in time for the celebrations marking 100 years since women first secured the right to vote. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was just nineteen when she organized the first petition for women’s suffrage in 1866, even though she was too young to sign it herself. Looking back at her life in later years, she found it hard to say at what age she decided that her life would be dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. “I cannot say I became a suffragist”, she wrote. “I always was one, from the time I was old enough to think at all about the principles of Representative Government”.

One of the principles of ‘representative government’ currently under debate is how it can adapt and become a more accurate reflection of British society. The Fawcett Society, which continues the work begun by Millicent Fawcett 150 years ago and today campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, is currently supporting the possibility of two people sharing the job of MP, as discussed in a recent article in the Huffington Post. This would enable more parents with children, carers, and disabled people to be elected (there is a marked ‘motherhood gap’ in the Commons and there are only six disabled MPs). Job-sharing for MPs is an idea supported by a range of cross-party MPs including Caroline Lucas, Dame Margaret Hodge, Sarah Wollaston and Tom Brake, who are convinced that it would help to make parliament more plural and progressive by enabling a wider range of voices to take part in debates.

Last month I went to the House of Commons to attend a committee meeting organized by the Fawcett Society. The discussion was held on the first day after the summer recess, and the high-ceilinged lobbies and halls of Westminster echoed with the shouts and laughter of MPs and others catching up with old friends and colleagues. As I walked along the oak-panelled corridor leading to the committee room, a group of dark-suited men strode by, and it was hard not to be reminded of confident senior prefects at a boys’ boarding school.

The meeting room, with its red flock wallpaper and vivid red and green carpet, was quieter, and overlooked a rainy Thames river. The host was Heather Stewart, herself a job-sharing pioneer as Political Editor of The Guardian with Anushka Asthana. The event marked the launch of the Fawcett Society pamphlet Open House? Reflections on the Possibility and Practice of MPs Job-sharing, available as a free download here. The editors of the publication, Prof Rosie Campbell and Prof Sarah Childs (both Birkbeck) were present, and discussed how their research demonstrated how MPs job-sharing could help to address, if not entirely overcome, the existing representational deficiencies in the UK House of Commons.

Also present was Clare Phipps, whose 2015 bid to stand for the Green Party, as a job-share with Sarah Cope, was rejected by Basingstoke. They took the matter to the High Court, but were not permitted to proceed with the case because the judge felt that the decision involved “important practical repercussions which this court is not equipped to evaluate”. So the responsibility was passed back to Parliament to decide how job-sharing would be done.

The House of Commons does not adapt to change easily, and there is resistance to the idea, perhaps because of the practical issues involved (although it is notable that the majority of objectors are male). “Not long ago there was a shooting range here,” Rosie Campbell reminded us. “A crèche was only introduced in 2010.” Many cite the idea as unworkable, but as Sam Smethers, the head of the Fawcett Society, pointed out at the meeting, many MPs already have other roles such as being a minister or work in another profession outside Parliament: “Stretching one person into several roles seems to me to be more challenging in terms of their performance than dividing up that role between two people.” There is plenty of evidence that job-sharing among high positions can work, and others at the meeting shared their own positive experiences.

800px-Henry_Fawcett;_Dame_Millicent_Garrett_Fawcett_(née_Garrett)_by_Ford_Madox_Brown

Sam Smethers gave a historical example of one inspiring job-sharing couple: Millicent Fawcett and her husband Henry. Henry Fawcett was a Liberal MP as well as the Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. Millicent Garrett was just eighteen when they met; he was 14 years older than her and completely blind, but they had a “perfect intellectual sympathy” according to Millicent’s biographer. While she was ‘his eyes’, helping him with his work, Henry Fawcett also encouraged Millicent’s own budding writing and public speaking career as a suffragist. They worked together as a team, jointly dealing with practical matters as job-sharers do, although Ford Madox Brown gives their relationship a rather more sentimental aspect in his 1872 double portrait, seen here.

Next year Millicent Fawcett’s statue will be the first woman among the eleven men already present in Parliament Square. It’s a long-overdue recognition of her lifetime’s work dedicated to giving women a voice in the democratic process. Meanwhile, the process of enabling more diversity within Parliament itself continues. As Sam Smethers says, “Let’s move on to discussing how we can make this work.”

Ann Kennedy Smith October 2017 (all rights reserved). 

Notes: “I cannot say I became a suffragist…” in ‘Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett’ by Janet Howarth in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; David Rubinstein, A different world for women: the life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991); The Fawcett Society at http://www.fawcett.org.uk; Ford Madox Ford’s portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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