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A Bird in a Cage - Women's suffrage in Wales

(June 01, 2014)

A Bird in a Cage
Women's suffrage in Wales

Margaret Haig Thomas

Margaret Haig Thomas, or Lady Rhondda, was one of Wales' most prominent and active women in the Suffragette movement. Even today, she represents the voice of the strong, independent woman, determined to make their own way in a male dominated society.

Until 1929 in Britain, women under the age of 30 were not allowed the voting privileges of their male counterparts. The suffragettes were a powerful force before events in 1914 but progress was slow. During World War One it became necessary to draw upon the resources and skills of Britain's women. Which, in turn, led to increased pressure on the government as more women began to grow restless and long for a voice of their own, on an equal footing to the men they had worked alongside in times of hardship.

 

Womens suffrage rally 1913 - copyright Casgliad y WerinWomens suffrage rally, Cardiff 1913 - © Casgliad y Werin

Welsh suffrage banner Cardiff
Suffrage banner used in the 1913 in the Womens suffrage rally, Cardiff
© Amgueddfa Cymru - Nation Museum Wales collection,
Saint Fagans

Thanks to the sacrifice, struggle and dedication of the Suffrage movement, many women began to take their first step into an ongoing struggle for equal rights. The movement was strong in Wales, with the Cardiff branch of the National Women's Union of Suffrage Societies being the largest outside London. One of the incredible women to use her power and influence to help achieve political equality for women was Lady Rhondda, of Llanwern House in Newport.

Inheriting title and business interests in 1918 from her father, Lady Rhondda was determined to make her voice heard, both in the matters of business and society. Unsatisfied with the traditional role of 'society debutante', Margaret briefly attended Oxford University and later, with her mother and father’s encouragement, became a prominent figure in the business and political spheres.

In 1909, Lady Rhondda established the Newport Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which she later became the secretary of, and founded one of the most influential cultural magazines of her day; Time and Tide magazine. Perhaps her most famous exploits, however, involved protest marches, jumping onto the running board of Herbert Asquith's (the Liberal Prime Minister) car and the planting of an incendiary device in a post box in Newport in an attempt to blow it up in the name of the Suffrage movement. She was imprisoned for this offense and released only after going on hunger strike.

Lady Rhondda also attempted to take her place in the House of Lords after her father died and she inherited his title. Despite much support from her male peers - including Lord Astor, husband of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, and the political activist and playwright George Bernard Shaw - she was eventually voted down and never took her place there. However, due largely to her struggles, less than a month after Lady Rhondda’s death, women entered the House of Lords in 1958.

Winding Snake's Heritage Lottery-funded project, A Bird in a Cage, is focusing on the life and activities of Lady Rhondda, to teach young people in Newport and Caerphilly about the Welsh Suffrage movement of the early 20th Century. The team of filmmakers, historians and community arts practitioners delivering the bilingual project are producing a documentary film and an online learning resource about Lady Rhondda, for pupils studying history at primary and secondary schools in Wales.

 

Welsh suffrage banner Monmouthshire Welsh suffrage banner Newport
Welsh suffrage banner Newport votes Welsh suffrage banner WSPU Newport
Newport and Monmouthshire suffrage banners
by kind permission of
Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Newport City Council

Working with Professor Angela V. John, author of Turning the Tide, Winding Snake filmmakers Amy Morris and Lauren Orme, local ‘litrepreneur’ Mab Jones and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate Tic Ashfield, the young people have written their own suffrage verse and accompanying choral music which will be used as part of the final project. They have also taken part in creative workshops to design and make their own suffrage banners, thanks to resources supplied by St Fagans National History Museum. The young women of Lewis Girl's School are also using the work accomplished in this project to obtain their own additional history qualification and will be visiting the House of Commons in July for a look inside the Emily Davison cupboard.

There are loads more activities coming up over the summer before the project is completed; in June the animation side of the project begins and we’ve been collecting personal blog posts from some fascinating people, including Baroness Anita Gale and Dame Rosemary Butler who will be writing about the role of women in public office in early July, and we’re even expecting a contribution from the Electoral Reform Commission about young people's voting rights, too. These will be publicly available for everyone to access.

Online bilingual learning resources, images and information are available through the project website www.abirdinacage.org, so everyone can share the experiences of the young people involved in the project. You can come and say hi and join in the discussion on our Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter (@thiswasmyworld) pages and keep up with project activities on the online blog on the project page.

So stay tuned to hear more about the amazing things happening over the summer and please get in touch with any information, opinions or ideas you'd like to share – they would love to hear from you.

 

If you liked this, you may also be interested in:
     Welsh women and the law, by Robert Wade

     Welsh women and the law - part II, by Robert Wade

 

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