Biography, Blog, Event

Looking at Lady Rhondda: Businesswoman, Campaigner and Journalist: Professor Angela V. John

In this, our latest great blog post, Professor Angela V. John reflects on her keynote address at the 2019 WHN conference.

I began by looking at how the teenage Margaret Haig Thomas (later Margaret Mackworth and, from 1918, the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda) saw her present and future when she was aged 16.

The first half of this illustrated lecture focused on this professional woman’s life story. The daughter of a very wealthy Welsh industrialist and politician D.A. Thomas, and well-connected Liberal mother, Sybil (née Haig), she grew up in the village of Llanwern in southeast Wales. An excellent education at St Leonards School in St Andrews was followed by two terms at Somerville College, Oxford then an ill suited marriage to the local Master of Hounds, Humphrey Mackworth.

Margaret’s marriage coincided with discovering women’s suffrage though she was not rebelling against her family. Her mother became president of the Newport, Monmouthshire branch of the WSPU – Margaret was its secretary for its entire existence – and her father a national vice-president of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. Margaret’s husband would meet her off the train after demonstrations in London with flasks of hot soup. Her arrest and imprisonment in 1913 (for setting a letterbox alight in Newport) was in line with the militancy of Haig relatives. One aunt broke windows at D.H. Evans department store in London then returned the next day to buy a new hat.

Margaret worked when married, earning one of the highest wages of any woman (£1,000pa) as her father’s right hand person. She learned about his coalmining, shipping, railway and printing businesses at home and abroad so that when he died prematurely in 1918 she was well poised to take over much of his industrial empire. She was soon sitting on 33 boards – more than any other woman in the UK – and chairing 7 of them.  In 1926 she became the first woman president of the Institute of Directors. The Depression made a considerable dent in her holdings but she remained immensely powerful.

She survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 – she was rescued unconscious from the sea – and seen as a heroic figure. Dr Octavia Wilberforce felt that this dramatic event ‘seemed to mark her out for a special destiny’.  Margaret held important wartime posts overseeing female recruitment to national service. With the coming of peace she sat on committees concerned with reconstruction. She was one of the pioneer female Justices of the Peace, sworn in at the Usk court next door to the prison where she had gone on hunger strike.

She created the Six Point Group in 1921. Its prescient programme sought to make gender equality paramount and provide a legal and social context to accompany the Representation of the People Act and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Based in London, Margaret immersed herself in the campaign for equal franchise from the mid-1920s, spearheading reform, mainly via the Equal Political Rights Campaign Committee. She fought for decades for peeresses in their own right to be able to take their seats in the House of Lords. Having a title and being entitled to sit in the upper house had very different meanings for men and women.

Throughout these years Margaret was running Time and Tide, the paper she had founded and funded in 1920 with a pioneering all female board. She edited it from 1926 until her death in 1958. Arguably the most important of Britain’s inter-war weeklies, it was portrayed as the paper ‘trying not merely to talk but to think’. After appealing in particular to the newly enfranchised woman voter of the 1920s, it reinvented itself several times, becoming the literary paper of the thirties and a leading political review after the Second World War. In 1943 Margaret was the first president of the new Women’s Press Club.

In the rest of the lecture I concentrated on how fellow journalists chose to represent this remarkable professional who was one of them and yet so different. Not only were there reservations about her inhabiting such masculine business territory but her personal life also placed her in a precarious position. Margaret divorced her husband and lived with ex-suffragette Helen Archdale, then spent the rest of her life with Theodora Bosanquet, reviews editor for Time and Tide. I examined how the press handled news of the divorce proceedings (instigated by Margaret in 1922). One paper displayed a photograph of her husband in khaki, a war hero who had been ‘completely obscured by his masterful wife’ who treated him as ‘a superfluity’.

In the same year she visited the United States where she was described as a vivacious young woman with the rosy cheeks of a 17 year-old. She was almost forty. The British press called her ‘a tall, well-made, jolly, big girl’. Some papers suggested that she displayed an old-fashioned femininity despite her profession. Yet others implied the antithesis of femininity. One newspaper represented her as ‘tall, athletic with the stride of a comely man’. Another suggested that her face assumed ‘almost masculine lines’ when she talked about women’s suffrage. I discussed how issues of gender identity were addressed, with the press portraying her gestures knowingly.

I focused on an illustrated article by the Sunday Chronicle journalist James Drawbell published in Britannia and Eve as well as in his 1933 publication A Gallery of Women. It featured twenty women, including Margaret’s friend Ellen Wilkinson, Margot Asquith and Greta Garbo.  I questioned Drawbell’s interpretation of the Alice Burton portrait of Margaret that he reproduced. He interviewed Margaret in the paper’s Bloomsbury office and was at pains to suggest a shy, yet shrewd and hard-working woman editor and to avoid the tropes favoured by many journalists. Nevertheless, he could not resist stressing what he saw as her maternal qualities. Finally, I drew attention to how we might see Margaret in the near future, as she will be the subject of a statue in Newport.

Angela V. John was, for many years, Professor of History at the University of Greenwich, London and is currently an honorary professor at Swansea University. She is the author/editor of a dozen books. They are mostly on women’s/gender history, with a focus on biography.