In many ways it was inevitable that Margaret should become a suffragette, born, as she was, into a family of political animals whose liberal views were ahead of their time. One of her earliest dreams as a child was to become Prime Minister and her liberal, gender-blind upbringing allowed her the scope to entertain such aspirations. Her mother, Sybil Thomas and her Aunt Lottie had both been involved in local Liberal Associations and her father, D.A. Thomas was an MP. Her second cousin, Florence Haig was one of the first women to be imprisoned for suffrage militancy and having spent six weeks in Holloway prison she came to Margaret’s family home in Llanwern to recuperate. Margaret’s own autobiography makes reference to this visit and it is clear that she was inspired by this rebellious and radical woman.
This encounter with her cousin, and perhaps also her impending nuptials, were what motivated her to attend the famous demonstration in Hyde Park on 21st June 1908 which saw vast numbers of suffragettes, from all over the country, gather in solidarity.
The experience transformed Margaret and shaped the person she was to become. In her autobiography she recounts the thrill of the event which “made us feel that we were part of life, not just outside watching it”. It was not long after this that she joined the WSPU and became Secretary for the newly formed Newport Branch. Although her mother, Sybil was more circumspect in her attitude to women’s suffrage, tending more towards the law-abiding and moderate Suffragist persuasion, she did not temper Margaret’s more militant tendencies and regularly held suffrage garden parties at Llanwern.
Her tireless efforts during the war, particularly her role in recruiting for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps kept her at the forefront of women’s emancipation and it was no doubt these efforts, as well as the efforts of many other women up and down the country, that finally saw Parliament, under the leadership of Lloyd George, introduce the Representation of the People Act of 1918. This Act allowed women of property over the age of thirty the right to vote, and while it still fell significantly short of the ultimate goal, it was at least a step in the right direction.
If anything, this galvanised Margaret to redouble her efforts and she continued to campaign tirelessly, leveraging the editorial power she wielded as the founder of the increasingly influential magazine Time and Tide. As she trenchantly comments in the 1921 January issue, “It is a far cry yet to the end of the road, and our present position is not yet altogether a satisfactory one from the point of view of the country as a whole. We have, as a fact, achieved a half-way position, and that is never a position which makes for stability.”
It would be another 7 years before the campaign could come to end, but end it finally did on 2nd July 1928 when the Equal Franchise Bill was finally passed. For the little girl who once dreamed of being Prime Minister this certainly marked the final vindication, but not the end of her work….
Check in with the next instalment to learn more about Lady Rhondda and the creation of the opera. In the next blog I will be exploring the tradition of the Male Impersonator in Music Hall; a concept that is central to the writing, the music and the production.
Prison and hunger strike inevitably followed and she spent a miserable week in Usk prison. It would have been longer had not her family been compelled to pay the fine in order to release her; her father’s position in Parliament meant that her incarceration could cause an undesirable scandal.
Disappointed but undeterred Margaret continued to press the cause of women’s suffrage until the outbreak of World War 1. At this point, the Newport Branch of the WSPU suspended all activities, as did almost all other suffragette groups, for the duration of the war. Margaret, however, was a canny woman. She recognised the huge opportunity that the war afforded women. With the men away at war, it was up to women to fill their roles and Margaret made sure that they made the most of this. As she herself said, “I think the war, awful as it has been, did a wonderful thing for women. It brought about a revolution for them which one may well imagine centuries might have otherwise been needed to encompass.”