Lady Rhondda (Margaret Haig Thomas)
Suffragette, Global Businesswoman, Editor and Lifelong Campaigner for Equality.
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London, buried Llanwern 1958
Lady Rhondda was a woman of privilege but she used that privilege in the best way possible - to fight for the rights of all women.
The suffrage movement was the very salt of life…a draught of fresh air into our padded, stilted lives. It gave us hope of freedom and power and opportunity.
She did things few other women of her background would have dared.
Born Margaret Haig-Thomas, she was a suffragette who made the fight for the vote front page news. She brought Emmeline Pankhurst to Wales and spearheaded the suffrage campaign among the women of Newport.
She confronted the anti-suffrage Prime Minister Asquith by jumping on his car. She set fire to a post box and was sent to prison, where she went on hunger strike.
In the First World War she ensured women played a vital role, recruiting them into the women’s services. She became Commissioner for Wales in the Women’s National Service Department, then Chief Controller of women’s recruitment at the Ministry of National Service in London.
Crossing the Atlantic, she survived the sinking of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed during the war, claiming more than 1,100 lives. Struggling to survive for hours in freezing water, the trauma proved a pivotal moment for Lady Rhondda:
“What it did do was to alter my opinion of myself. I had lacked self-confidence…and here I had got through this test without disgracing myself. I had found that when the moment came, I could control my fear.”
After the war as well as campaigning for the rights of women workers who did not want to be pushed back into the home, she also continued the fight for the final phase of women’s suffrage which saw all women get the vote in 1928.
She was the greatest global businesswomen of her era. She sat on the board of 33 companies, chairing seven of them, and oversaw an industrial empire of mines, shipping and newspapers. She also became the first and to date only female to be President of the Institute of Directors.
As a journalist she created and edited a ground-breaking and hugely influential weekly paper called Time and Tide which featured some of the literary giants of the 20th century – from George Orwell and Virginia Woolf to JRR Tolkien.
It had a ground-breaking all-female board but appealed to both men and women. Exploring Welsh, British and international politics as well as the arts, Time and Tide was one of the key journals of the interwar period. Lady Rhondda also used the paper to push her progressive programme called The Six Point Group. It made gender equality paramount.
Lady Rhondda argued that women’s voting rights must be accompanied by social and economic legislation. Her programme sought legislation for mothers that would give children better protection. It was ahead of its time in demanding strict laws on child assault and it sought to protect widowed mothers with young children and the unmarried mother and child.
The other three points dealt with equal rights for men and women, demanding equal guardianship of children for married parents, equality of opportunity in the civil service and equal pay for teachers.
And Lady Rhondda is the reason women of today can sit in the House of Lords. She campaigned for female peers for 40 years – though sadly she died before the law she fought for was changed, too late to take her own seat.
Any one of these individual achievements would have secured her place in history – put them all together and Lady Rhondda remains one of the most remarkable figures Wales has ever known.