HomePERCE BLACKBOROWARTHUR GOULD

NEWPORT LEGENDS

VISCOUNTESS RHONDDA (MARGARET HAIG THOMAS)

In the early years of the 20th century British women were still prevented from voting or standing for parliament. The determined and sometimes violent campaign by the women of the Suffragette movement began the long road to eventual equality.

Born in Bayswater, London Margaret Haig Thomas was a classic Suffragette. She was educated, outspoken and refused to be treated as a second-class citizen because of her gender. She noted early on that while ambition was regarded as a virtue in young men, it was seen as vice in young women.

Margaret joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union and organised their first meeting at Newport, much to the disapproval of her fox-hunting husband, Humphrey Mackworth. In 1908 Margaret was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to blow up a letter box with a home-made bomb. Refusing to be bailed out by Humphrey, she went on hunger-strike and was eventually released after five days without food.

RUSSELL DEACON WRITES

"Margaret Haig Thomas was the only daughter of the David Alfred Thomas the Liberal MP for Merthyr Tydfil and later Cardiff. He was also the proprietor of the Cambrian Coal Combine and various other businesses.

Margaret was born into a life of substantial luxury and alternated her upbringing between London, Scotland and her family's mansion in Llanwern, Newport. Yet Margaret did not care of the social conventions or restrictions of the time and her ambition at school was to be none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There was still no place for women in Welsh politics let alone national government during Margaret's formative years. Therefore her political ambitions would have to be set in a different direction. Margaret was initially a Liberal who followed in her father's reforming footsteps. She then married the Welsh Conservative Humphrey Mackworth in 1908.

She soon, however, rejected the social life of Mackworth linked to hunting and within four months of marriage had engaged herself fully into the suffragette movement. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and took part in its campaign to help secure votes for women. She was honorary secretary of the Newport branch.

Margaret now threw herself into the heart of the protest movement which included the protest marches with the Pankhursts, jumping onto the running board of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's car in St Andrews and setting fire to pillar boxes. These activities resulted in serving a period of time in Usk prison where she was only released after going on a hunger strike. From 1908 until 1914 Margaret took the campaign for women's suffrage across Newport and South Wales, often to hostile and stormy meetings.

During the First World War she loyally supported her country, visiting the United States with her father, now ennobled Viscount Rhondda, to promote the British cause. On her return in 1915 she survived the sinking of the Lusitania, which ironically would eventually lead America's entry into the war on the Britain's side. Margaret now became the commissioner for national women's service in Wales and later in 1918 was made the chief recruiting officer for women in the United Kingdom

None of this campaigning however, prevented Margaret, a successful woman in her own right, becoming a politician. Upon the death of her father in 1918 she was allowed by the King (through a Special Remainder) to become a Peeress in her own right - Baroness Rhondda of Llanwern. Margaret was now one of the few peeresses for whom the title could pass down through the female line.

By the time of her ennoblement Margaret had already taken over the directorships of some 30 of her father's companies, when he had joined the war-time government as food controller. She now became an even more prominent figure and role model in the advancement of women's political and employment rights. In 1922 she led an unsuccessful campaign to allow women to sit in the House of Lords. They would not be allowed to sit there until 1958, the year of her death.

Although she was never to sit in the House of Lords Margaret did become the first female President of the Institute of Directors in 1926 and in 1920 established and from then on edited the influential weekly paper Time and Tide.

Margaret divorced in 1922 and had no children, so the title ended with her. With no children to carry on her legacy or political party to support her memory the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda is now a somewhat forgotten figure in Welsh politics. Her achievements, particularly in a time in which the social restrictions severely limited female involvement in politics are now perhaps an even greater cause for her to be remembered."

ATTEMPT TO REFORM FEMALE REPRESENTATION IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS

Quoting George Bernard Shaw, who highly respected Margaret, the House of Lords saw Lady Rhondda as a "terror."  Because of her political business acumen, "the House of Lords has risen up and said, 'If Lady Rhondda comes in here, we go away!' "  Shaw goes further to say that if she had gained entry, "there would be such a show-up of the general business ignorance and imbecility of the male sex as never was before."

Margaret persisted to change the law to accommodate women.  She had her lawyer draft a bill to remove the sex bar and had Viscount Astor propose to Parliament.  Although Astor proposed the same bill almost annually from 1924 to 1930 with the bill at times coming within two votes of passing, Viscount Astor would not succeed.

The issue of women in the House of Lords was revived in the 1940s, and Margaret and others launched a petition to show there existed public support for women in the House of Lords.  The first six months saw 50,000 signatures, including the principals of the women's colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.  The Lords themselves finally passed a motion for women's admission in 1949, but the Labour government under Prime Minister Attlee refused to deliver the promised legislation.

PERSONAL LIFE

In her personal life, Margaret divorced Sir Humphrey (as stated above) in 1922.  Sir Humphrey was a Conservative and didn't quite see eye-to-eye with his Liberal wife.  The deterioration of their relationship had actually occurred very early in their marriage.  Her autobiography, This Was My World, which showcased her philosophy of life, was published in 1933.