Let’s honour the extraordinary Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her sister Millicent Fawcett

Anne-Marie Duff (Violet) and Carey Mulligan (Maud) in Suffragette

Anne-Marie Duff (Violet) and Carey Mulligan (Maud) in Suffragette - Credit: Steffan Hill

Watching the film Suffragette got Terry Hunt thinking about two Suffolk sisters who played a huge part in establishing citizenship for women, and today he asks why we don’t do more to celebrate their roles in changing our society.

Here he explains more.

I paid a rare visit to the cinema the other night. No, not to watch the new James Bond blockbuster. I am a creature of such limited imagination that I don’t really enjoy fictional films, and I can’t read novels.

So I settled down to enjoy Suffragette, which is based on the campaign in the early 20th century to gain votes for women.

A good film, I thought. Based on actual events, obviously, but with a plot which mixed fact with fiction. Meryl Streep looked uncannily like Emmeline Pankhurst, the upper crust radical who encouraged her Suffragette followers to carry out ever more militant acts – including, around here, burning down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe.

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Watching events unfold, my mind wandered to the extraordinary contribution to women’s rights made by the Garrett sisters from Aldeburgh. Both Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett should be held in the highest esteem for the leading roles they played in establishing citizenship for women. And both were Suffolk women, from the amazing Garrett family.

Famously, Elizabeth overcame deeply-held prejudices to become the first woman doctor allowed to practice medicine in this country. I wonder how many times during her decades of struggle she was told in the most condescending tones: “Why don’t you run along and make lunch for your husband and children, dear?” It reminds me of that old Harry Enfield comedy sketch entitled “Women – know your limits.’’

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Not only did Elizabeth become the first female doctor but, late in her life, she was also the first woman to hold the post of mayor, which she did in Aldeburgh, the town where she had grown up.

Her younger sister, Millicent, played just as important a part in the fight for women’s rights. Millicent was a suffragist, not a suffragette, and opposed the militancy of Pankhurst’s followers, believing their violent actions were actually harming the cause.

She focused her more diplomatic style of campaigning mainly on improving women’s opportunities for higher education, and was the co-founder of Newnham College at Cambridge University, only the second college to admit women.

Today, Millicent’s name lives on in the high-profile Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality and women’s rights.

Elizabeth is remembered through a school for girls in London and, of course, the relatively new building at Ipswich Hospital is entitled the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Centre.

But – and here I finally get to the point – in Aldeburgh, the sisters’ home town – there is precious little to remember them and their monumental achievements.

The family grave is in the parish churchyard and, yes, there are blue plaques for both Elizabeth and Millicent on a wall of their former family home. But they don’t exactly leap out at you!

To me, that’s a major omission. We are talking about two of Suffolk’s finest here. Two of our own who helped to shape our modern-day society.

Surely they deserve more recognition, especially in Aldeburgh?

There is an opportunity coming up. December 2017 will mark the centenary of Elizabeth’s death. It would be good to think that Aldeburgh can mark that anniversary with an appropriate memorial for both Elizabeth and Millicent – two Suffolk women who changed society forever.

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