The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women

Stephen Halliday on six fearless sisters whose pioneering feminism left Queen Victoria unamused

June 19, 2008

Some families are hotbeds of iconoclasm, and one such was the family of Newson Garrett (1812-93). He is remembered in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, as the prosperous local businessman who built the Maltings at Snape, adopted by Benjamin Britten as the home for his festival. Newson and his wife Louisa had ten children. Their four sons led blameless lives, lacking the gene that ensured that their six sisters were the plague of those Victorians who, like their Queen, believed that women should know their places. Theirs is the story told by Jenifer Glynn.

Newson sent his daughters to a school in London's Blackheath run by relatives of the poet Robert Browning. There they were known as "the bathing Garretts" because they took a weekly bath. At Blackheath, the girls learnt that there was more to life than sewing, serving tea and bearing children.

Elizabeth, born in 1836, was welcomed as a nurse by doctors at the Middlesex Hospital but she alarmed them when she announced that she wanted to be a doctor, explaining disarmingly that she would rather earn thousands of pounds a year than hundreds.

Her presence in lectures was tolerated until she proved to be more knowledgeable than the male medical students, who signed a petition demanding her expulsion. The Lancet referred to "the apple of discord" that this new Eve was offering the profession.

No university in Britain would accept her, but she discovered that the Society of Apothecaries' rules did not exclude women from its examinations. When she passed, they changed the rules to prevent it happening again. Her medical degree was obtained by passing the examinations (in French) of the University of Paris, which admitted female students at the insistence of the Empress Eugenie. The Lancet repented and congratulated Elizabeth for her determination. Unconventional as ever, Elizabeth continued to work as a doctor after marrying James Anderson, a prosperous shipowner.

Elizabeth's own sovereign, Victoria, did not share the views of Empress Eugenie. She condemned "this most wicked folly of Women's Rights, with all its attendant horrors", her wrath being particularly directed at Elizabeth's sister Millicent. Born in 1847, Millicent married the blind MP Henry Fawcett, who had previously proposed to Elizabeth. Their friend John Stuart Mill tried to extend the suffrage to women in 1868 and Millicent was moved by his arguments to form the Suffragist movement, working within the law.

In this she was actively supported by her sisters Josephine and Louise, who also founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women at a time when middle-class women had to choose between being wives or governesses.

The sisters were opposed by the Anti-Suffrage League, led by the popular novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward, which attracted the support of many prominent women, notably the Queen. Elizabeth's daughter, Louisa, fell out with her aunt Millicent because she thought the suffragists too moderate. She joined Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes and was jailed. Millicent died in 1929, having lived to see women fully enfranchised the previous year.

Glynn reveals that the fifth sister, Alice, became a member of the London School Board, campaigning for free education for the poor, while the sixth, Agnes, founded a successful interior design business, whose clients included the composer Sir Hubert Parry. She also designed the interior of the New Hospital for Women, opened with funds raised by Elizabeth who had become, in the words of a contemporary, a "persistent, shameless and highly successful beggar". Florence Nightingale contributed £50.

The sisters did not always agree. Elizabeth advocated compulsory smallpox vaccinations. Millicent opposed them on libertarian grounds. While Elizabeth was sympathetic to Lancashire cotton workers who were unemployed owing to the embargo on southern cotton during the American Civil War, Millicent opposed attempts to find them alternative local employment, urging them to migrate to the woollen mills of Yorkshire, anticipating Norman "on your bike" Tebbitt the following century. She also opposed her sister Alice's campaign for free education for the poor.

Elizabeth is remembered by her hospital, which after her death in 1917 was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and is now incorporated in University College Hospital. In 2008, the majority of medical students are female. The Fawcett Society bears Millicent's name, as does the Fawcett Women's Library in Whitechapel that holds her extensive correspondence. A blue plaque at 2 Gower Street in London reminds us that Millicent lived there but doesn't mention that the address was, at the time, the business premises of her sister Agnes; the other sisters were almost forgotten.

Glynn's authoritative and entertaining book reminds us of the early struggles of intelligent women to be accepted as full members of society. But The Pioneering Garretts makes them sound too moderate and respectable. Shouldn't this compelling account be titled The Battling Garretts?

The Pioneering Garretts: Breaking the Barriers for Women

By Jenifer Glynn
ISBN 9781847252074
Published 28 February 2008

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