NEWPORT suffragette Lady Rhondda could soon get a statue built in the city to commemorate her tireless efforts for gender equality - but who was this remarkable Welsh woman?

The suffragette movement proved an important moment in the history of the UK's democracy, yet many of the women who put everything on the line to fight for their right to vote have been largely forgotten.

Professor Angela V John’s biography on Lady Rhondda, otherwise known as Margaret Haig Thomas, titled Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda aims to redress this balance, detailing the life and story of an activist, businesswoman and suffragist who made her mark and helped turn the tide of history.

Margaret Haig Thomas was born in London in 1883, but when she was a small child her parents moved back to Wales. She would grow up in Llanwern House, overlooking what was then the village of Llanwern near Newport.

Her first suffrage demonstration in was in London, three weeks before her wedding. Lady Rhondda's mother, Sybil Haig, was already prominent in women’s liberal politics – becoming president of the Newport branch of the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

“Margaret spoke at many suffrage meetings in Newport and Cardiff, even taking part in debates, wrote articles in the Welsh newspapers and British suffrage papers and even paraded around Newport with her aunt Lottie Haig wearing a sandwich board advertising meetings,” said Professor John. 

“Her best-known and most infamous exploit took place on her home patch. In the summer of 1913, she set fire to a letter box in Risca Road, Newport - there is now a plaque to commemorate this activity.

“She travelled to London to collect the necessary chemicals; she hid them in the blackcurrant bushes in her garden.

“She described later how her heart was ‘beating like a steam engine’ when she set the letterbox alight. As a result of her arson she was arrested, refused to pay her fine and was sentenced to a month in Usk Gaol. 

“Margaret continued to be a very active WSPU secretary and Newport had its own suffrage shop - until the outbreak of the First World War. Like other suffragettes, she suspended active campaigning during the war, but in the 1920s resumed her suffrage involvement in London and helped to bring about the Equal Franchise Act that gave the vote to all women in 1928 (women over 30 who fulfilled certain qualifications were enfranchised in 1918). 

“For some time, she had been working for her father as one of the highest paid women in the UK. She was his right-hand person, helping her father in his negotiations over his businesses - including coalminers, shipping, railway, and newspaper interests - most of which she inherited on his death in 1918.

“It was highly unusual for a married woman to hold such a position. In the latter part of the war she was the Women’s Commissioner for Wales for the Women’s National Service department, organising recruitment of women to serve in France and elsewhere, speaking across Wales and organising propaganda.

“In May 1920 she founded what I see as her greatest achievement, the weekly paper Time and Tide. She also became a campaigner for decades for women who had been granted peerages to take their rightful seat in the House of Lords.
“In 1958, the year she died, the first female life peers were created."

Without the likes of Lady Rhondda and other suffragettes, it is highly unlikely that there would have been women in key roles shaping our country’s history. Some of those include two prime ministers, a chief executive of fashion brand Burberry, the head of London’s Metropolitan Police Service as well as in many other areas of society

But still there are few statues to commemorate such influential women - and the Monumental Welsh Women project wants to do something about this. 

South Wales Argus: Less than half of all UK statues are womenLess than half of all UK statues are women

A campaign, titled Statue for Lady Rhondda, is gaining momentum ever since the fuse was lit last year – and reached more than one third of its £100,000 target this year. And the Argus is formerly backing the campaign - we believe it's long past time Lady Rhondda is commemorated in a fitting manner.

Julie Nicholas, chairwoman of the campaign group, said: “This is a campaign for a prominent Woman of Gwent, so we are very pleased that the South Wales Argus is joining in." 

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