Women in Wales have made it into history books for centuries. This woman however, not only went down in history, but helped shape its course for women across Great Britain.
In the wake of suffragette martyr, Emily Davison’s death at Epsom racecourse in 1913, the fight for female enfranchisement in Wales was only just beginning. Welsh women had exhausted every avenue to gain the vote legally. But when the law refused to work with Welsh women, Welsh women refused to work within the law.
On Risca Road, Newport, Margaret Mackworth– later Viscountess Rhondda (1883-1958)- walked the familiar streets of her hometown, approached a postbox and tried to blow it up with a homemade chemical bomb. Margaret was a Welsh suffragette, and had now committed a crime for the cause.
Margaret came from a powerful and liberal family in Newport. She debated social and political issues with her father, with the intention of Margaret becoming trained as a businesswoman in her own right. Her mother was equally as liberal and was a member of the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In her 1933 autobiography, This was my World, Margaret recalled how her mother “prayed passionately that her baby daughter might become a feminist.”
In 1908, her mother’s wish became a reality when Margaret joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Newport; by the following year she was the branch’s secretary. She travelled across Britain promoting female suffrage, sold the Votes for Women newspaper and wrote a column for The Western Mail. She even invited Emmeline Pankhurst to speak at Newport’s Temperance Hall.
Margaret’s militancy escalated quickly. She began encouraging women to smash windows, cut telegraph wires, attack areas of male recreation and frighten cabinet ministers. “They wouldn’t have perceived themselves as terrorists. They believed they’d been forced into it,” explains Margaret’s biographer, Angela. V. John. During the 1910 General Election, she jumped on the running-board of Prime Minister Asquith’s car. She became known as ‘The Welsh Boadicea’. Angela says: “They were not seen as citizen, so they had to bring attention to their plight. They attacked property, not people. They saw it as valid to set letterboxes alight.”
By 1913, Margaret was imprisoned at Usk Gaol for the explosive device she attempted to detonate. She refused to let her husband pay the £10 fine for her freedom. Instead, the Cat and Mouse Act enabled her to secure release on her own terms, after she staged a five-day hunger strike. “The government were worried about people making martyrs of themselves,” Angela adds. From then on, Margaret vowed, “I shall campaign for the suffrage cause until the franchise is given to women.”
Universal female suffrage was not achieved in the United Kingdom until 1928. However, Margaret ensured that time would not deter, but only fuel her fight for legal female representation – a fight which she continued up until her death.
During the outbreak of The Great War, militant activities by the suffragettes were scaled back in order to fight for King and Country. In 1917, Margaret was given the title of Lady Rhondda and she became the Director of Women’s Department of the Ministry of National Service. Due in part, to contributions made by women such as Margaret during the war effort, the vote was given to a handful of women in 1918. Women were required to meet strict property specifications and had to be over 30-years-of-age to gain a political voice. “The campaign for rights for women over 21 carried on more peacefully, but they carried on… She advocated for legal changed alongside the voting rights,” Angela says.
By the time of her father’s death in 1918, he had been made a Viscount. Margaret inherited his property, commercial interests, and his title. She attempted to claim her hereditary right to take her seat in Parliament as Viscountess Rhondda by citing the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. The notion of a female sitting in Parliament disgruntled many old-fashioned peers however, leading to her request being swiftly denied. Despite impassioned attempts by Viscountess Rhondda and Viscountess Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, efforts to remove the sex bar proved fruitless.
Despite her inability to take her seat in the House of Lords, Viscountess Rhondda ensured that her voice would be heard by other means. She did this by breaking the boundaries of many gender constraints. In 1920, she founded Time and Tide, a political magazine which she edited from 1926. Famous figures and thinkers of the time contributed to the publication including D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Astor, Emmeline Pankhurst and George Orwell. She also divorced her Conservative husband, Sir Humphrey Mackworth who clashed with her own liberal views in 1922. She rejected the constraints of a respectable, conventional and loveless marriage and formed an intimate relationship with Helen Archdale, a fellow militant suffragette. She later developed a close relationship with writer, Winifred Holtby, a woman 15 years her junior and eventually setup home with Theodora Bosanquet in 1933, the woman with whom she would spend the rest of her life.
The Six Point Group of Great Britain became her next venture, which focused on the six key issues facing the women of the time. These issues included satisfactory legislation for child assault, statutes to protect widows, laws to defend unmarried mothers and her children, equal rights of guardianship for married parents, equal pay for teachers and equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service. Angela clarifies that, “She exposed problems. Changes don’t happen overnight. Social change is needed first. Change comes from within. She enabled people to see for themselves the injustice of something.”
In 1963, five years after Viscountess Rhonnda’s death, the House of Lords finally allowed women with hereditary peerages to take up their seats. The bill became informally known as ‘The Lady Rhondda bill’. In her lifetime, she had made an indelible mark on the campaign for equal rights for women. She had been a suffragette, a wartime leader, a businesswoman, a peer, a journalist and spokeswoman for women across Great Britain. She proved that Welsh women were not willing to sit idly by in a man’s world, but were prepared to shape it.