It has become a fashionable feminist slogan that is printed on everything from T-shirts and badges to fridge magnets and mugs: “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.
On her statue in Parliament Square, the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett even proudly displays her famous quotation on a stone banner.
But a new book suggests that Fawcett’s words have been taken out of context and that she was not making the rallying cry for feminism and suffrage that many people have thought.
“We have taken a quote where Fawcett’s making a statement and we’ve turned it into this feminist go-getting slogan,” said Edinburgh University professor Melissa Terras, editor of a forthcoming book, Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings.
“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied” is often cited as a quote from a speech Fawcett made in 1913 about Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after she ran on to Epsom racecourse and was trampled by King George V’s horse.
In fact, Fawcett – who did not approve of the suffragettes’ militant tactics to get the vote – never made any such speech, claimed Terras.
It was not until after some women had the vote, in 1920, that she finally penned her famous line about the contagious impact of the suffragette’s courage.
At that point, Fawcett was merely trying to explain why Davison’s death – which she described as a deliberately “sensational” act of self-sacrifice – made headlines around the world, argues Terras.
“She thought that Davison’s death was pointless,” said Terras, who co-edited the book with suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford. “She sees it as a senseless loss of life.”
In 1913, Fawcett ran a tersely worded editorial in her weekly newspaper, the Common Cause, stating that, for all who believed in the enfranchisement of women, Davison’s death was a “piteous waste of courage and devotion” that did not deserve the name of “heroism”. She made no other attempt to publicly mourn or comment on Davison’s death at the time, the new book will show.
Terras thinks it is extremely unlikely that when Fawcett wrote her now famous quotation in a book, seven years after Davison’s death, she had decided to rally other women to stand up and fight for their rights as Davison did.
Instead, she suggests that Fawcett, a patriotic pro-war imperialist, was making a connection between Davison’s “self-sacrifice” for the cause of “freedom” and the deaths of so many men during the first world war. Terras said: “In the context of 1920, when lots of young people had just lost their lives, she writes that giving up your life for something you believe in is courageous.”
She may also have been making a call for unity, said the social historian Jane Robinson, who specialises in women’s history. “For many years, the fight for the vote had been divided, and now here was a chance, after the war and ahead of universal suffrage, to bring healing. Hence, courage calls to courage everywhere: we’re all in this together,” Robinson said.
Beverley Cook, curator of the suffragette collection at the Museum of London, said she thinks it is fashionable for contemporary feminists to reclaim the words of the “votes for women” campaigners for their own ends. “Sometimes the words of the suffragists and suffragettes are taken out of context and given a contemporary reinterpretation.”
Terras decided to write the book, which will be published on an open access basis by UCL Press on 9 June, because she could not find the speech Fawcett supposedly made in 1913 and realised that no collection of Fawcett’s speeches and writings existed.
“I thought: how can it be that someone so famous as the first woman to have a statue in Parliament Square – how can it be that no one can read her words? And that felt like an injustice to me.”