Wednesday, August 31, 2016

‘In The Steps Of Exceptional Women’, The Story Of The Fawcett Society 1866-2016. By Jane W. Grant. Francis Boutle Publishers.

‘In The Steps Of Exceptional Women’, The Story Of The Fawcett Society 1866-2016. By Jane W. Grant.  Francis Boutle Publishers. 2016.  £14.99

My Summer reading has included ‘In The Steps Of Exceptional Women’ by Dr Jane Grant. Her book celebrates the remarkable story of The Fawcett Society from its inception in 1866.‘ The Society is the UK charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Millicent Fawcett after whom the Fawcett Society is named, has long been one of my women’s rights campaigner role model heroines. I selected  her as my choice for BBC Radio 4 Great Lives hosted by Matthew Parris (

The names of the Victorian and Edwardian Greats who have left their foot-prints on the path towards women’s equality are there in the book – the Garrett sisters (Millicent, and Elizabeth), Emily Davies, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Jessie Boucheret and other ‘Ladies of the Langham Place Group. The Langham Place Group was an acorn of the feminist movement in the UK.
The author’s research for ‘In The Steps Of Exceptional Women’, The Story Of The Fawcett Society 1866-2016  grew out of her doctorate at the University of Kent on Governance, Continuity and Change in the Organised Women’s Movement. (the strapline to her thesis was ‘We walk in the footsteps of some exceptional women.’)
To those of us who have spent our adult lives campaigning for equality for the majority gender Jane W. Grant is just about as remarkable (and exceptional) as the Society itself, and her book must be considered the yard-stick on the Society’s history.  Jane has been a member of the Fawcett Society for over 30 years, with three years on the Executive Board. I have known Jane since the late 1980s when during her time in policy development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations  Jane became mid-wife to the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO)(launched in 1989.) She was Director of NAWO for five years.
Jane has always had an international perspective. In the 1990s when I was CEO of NGO Project Parity helping women to be included in democratic politics  during the transition in Central and Eastern Europe,  She came on trips as a member of my Project Parity Team. We also  share an interest in women and peace issues. Jane is a supporter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

There are several periods of history where I would order my Time Machine to return to. To listen in on the conversations the campaigners held in 1914 would be very high on my SatNav list.

I turned at once to Chapter 3 covering one of the most intriguing periods of the suffrage campaigners lives – how should they respond to (or take advantage of) the advent of the Great War? Suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst took the decision to back the war against ‘the German Peril’. They and their followers –threw themselves into the fray, helping to recruit women into the munitions industry, even in 1915 rechristening The Suffragette newspaper the Britannia.   In a family rift, their sister Sylvia was a staunch Peace Campaigner.  Jane Grant notes, the response of Millicent Fawcett and the non-militant suffragists was, initially, ‘more nuanced’. Mrs. Fawcett’s International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) delivered an international manifesto to the foreign Embassies in London commencing, ‘ We, the women of the world, view with apprehension and dismay the present situation in Europe which threatens to involve one continent, if not the whole world, in the disasters and horrors of war…’
As the terrible conflict drew to an end, the campaign for women’s right to vote hotted up again, though never to its former militancy. In March 1917 Millicent Fawcett and leaders of 24 women’s suffrage societies and 10 other organisations went to see the new Prime Minister Lloyd George. The debate in the House on 10 January 1918 resulted in a majority for the women’s suffrage clause in the Representation of the People Bill. On February 6 1919 it received the Royal Assent. Women property owners over the age of 30 could now vote. Another ten years passed before women could vote on equal terms with men, i.e. at aged 21.

In her book Jane Grant pays tribute to the invaluable help in tough financial times the Fawcett Society received from the Barrow Cadbury Trust. Funding is a major hurdle for women’s equality campaigns. The human rights world has great cause to be grateful to the Quaker founders of the chocolate industry. I appreciate how the 300 Group survived and developed through the funding and free offices provided at 9 Poland Street by the Rowntree Trust. 

Jane brings the story to the present day, through the struggles of women Members of Parliament like Jo Richardson, the ‘Listen To My Vote’ campaign developed ahead of the 1997 election by Fawcett’s Mary-Anne Stephenson, the joint campaigns run by the Society with the Royal College of Nursing and the Low Pay Unit, to Fawcett’s major report ‘Sex Equality: State Of The Nation 2016’ (‘Equality. It’s About Time’).
The job isn’t finished. The struggle goes on. The tide moves ever-forward, but there is still a way to go.  I titled the movement I started back from the Mill House in the tiny Oxfordshire hamlet of Burford ‘The 300 Group’ because the aim was to achieve 300 women MPs, just about 50% of ‘the Mother of Parliaments’. Even now, in 2016, some 46 years later, that number has not fully been attained, though it’s very nearly 200 and I’m happy to see new groups such as the 50/50 Group carrying on where the 300 GROUP left off (they ran out of funds) . Parliament makes or breaks the laws which guide and control the nation’s life. Decisions are made which take us to war or decrease or increase the still-wretched gap between what women and men earn for work of equal value, even the right to have control over our own bodies. 300 or more women in Parliament would help do the job. Millicent Fawcett would most certainly agree: the struggle goes on.
‘In The Steps…’ contains a wonderful set of historic photographs and illustrations, including a woodcut-like cityscape of Parliament titled ‘View From The Top Window’ of the Women’s Service House on Marsham Street.
A must for researchers, students, teachers, journalists, politicians, and all keen to know more about the long, hard, valiant and ultimately successful struggle for that most basic and precious of human rights, the right of a woman to help decide who we choose to run our communities and nation and critical aspects of our lives.
‘In The Steps Of Exceptional Women’, The Story Of The Fawcett Society 1866-2016. By Jane W. Grant.  Francis Boutle Publishers. 2016.  £14.99
For information on The Fawcett Society see


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