Women and Wales: Achieving Political Power

Our first post of 2019 is a guest post by Oonagh Gay, UK Vote 100 volunteer

Inspirational women of Wales

A couple of years ago a task force called Monumental Welsh Women  came together, and in May 2018 assisted  the Welsh Women’s Equality Network to draw up a list of 100 historical Welsh women who epitomised and illustrated the achievements, talents and successes of Welsh women over the years. They announced a campaign to establish a new statue of an inspirational Welsh woman, sponsored by the Welsh Government. The campaign highlighted the lack of available images in Wales of women who had achieved  great success. It produced an initial longlist of 50 women, including suffrage and anti-slavery campaigners, poets and medical pioneers.

The shortlist of five was announced on 7 January 2019 and these Hidden Heroines are featuring in the Welsh media this week. The public will then vote on which woman should be immortalised with a permanent statue in 2020.

One of the women is Lady Rhondda, discussed below. The others are:

Elizabeth Andrews a suffragist and magistrate and women’s rights campaigner,

Betty Campbell, the first woman of colour to become a headmistress in Wales,

Sarah Jane Rees-Cranogwen, a master mariner and the first female winner of the National Eisteddfod,

Elaine Morgan, author, television dramatist and evolutionary theorist.

With our parliamentary focus, this blog looks at women MPs elected in Wales, as well as the impact of Lady Rhondda on the admission of women to the House of Lords.

Once the winner is announced, the Monumental Welsh Women project will be leading the development and construction of the statue which will be located in Central Square, Cardiff. BBC Wales will be following the progress of the project as part of documentary to be broadcast in 2020.

Megan Lloyd George- the first woman MP in Wales

 Previous Vote 100 blogs have focused on the women MPs for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The first woman MP was of course Constance Markiewicz, who was elected for  the Irish constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s. The first woman to sit for an English seat was of course Nancy Astor, elected in 1919; it was another ten years before Wales had a woman MP in the shape of Megan Lloyd George. As daughter of the former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, she had already spent large parts of her childhood in 11 Downing Street and was familiar with the Palace of Westminster.

In 1928 Megan became Liberal candidate for Anglesey and was returned to Parliament at the general election of 30 May 1929, when aged only 27. In fact, this would have been the first election at which she had the right to vote, as it was not until 1928 that the voting age for men and women was equalized at 21. Her maiden speech on 5 April 1930 on rural housing was informative and lively.

but the wife whose duties keep her more or less a prisoner in her very wretched quarters in a poor cottage must suffer. This is borne out by a report which was made some years ago in my constituency, Anglesey, where it was shown that the death rate from tuberculosis among women was the highest but one on the list for the whole of the administrative counties in England and Wales; and yet the death rate of the men came only 22nd on that very black list. There can be only one explanation of that, and that is bad housing. The greater risk to health is for the woman who spends the greater part of her life in these squalid, dark, ill-ventilated cottages and, of course, what applies to the woman also applies to young children. I think that that must account for the fact that in 1927 the infant mortality rate in the Island of Anglesey was equivalent to 93 per thousand, which, when compared with even the largest cities, is an alarmingly high rate.

She opposed Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government and was one of the family group of four Welsh independent Liberal members led by Lloyd George after the 1931 general election. The thirties were a turbulent and fluid time in party politics. Megan often urged co-operation between the Liberals and Labour and supported her father’s ‘new deal’ programme in 1935 for combating unemployment. She acted as a mentor towards women MPs of all parties, inviting them to tea, and socialising in the Lady Members Room.

Women MPs, 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/15/2/1
Event for women MPs celebrating Megan Lloyd George’s 20th anniversary in Parliament, 31 May 1949. Parliamentary Archives, PUD/15/2/1. Left to right standing:Lucy Middleton, Barbara Ayrton-Gould, Bessie Braddock, Caroline Ganley, Florence Paton, Edith Summerskill, Megan Lloyd George, Alice Bacon, Viscountess Davidson, Lady Grant of Monymusk (Priscilla Buchan, Baroness Tweedsmuir), Lucy Noel-Buxton, Edith Wills. Left to right seated: Margaret Herbison, Mabel Ridealgh, Jennie Lee, Margaret Wintringham.

One of Megan’s passions was foreign affairs. She was an executive member of the League of Nations Union. However, Megan was an uncompromising critic of appeasement from the 1935 Abyssinia crisis onwards. She remained a fierce opponent of Chamberlain’s government after the outbreak of the war, and played a major part in facilitating her father’s  devastating speech, in the debate of 7–8 May 1940, which led to Chamberlain’s resignation.

Another commitment was towards Welsh culture. She became a bard of the national eisteddfod in 1935 and the first woman member of the Welsh church commissioners in 1942, supervising a church her father had disestablished. She was also a champion of Welsh political development, helping to press, unsuccessfully, for the appointment of a Secretary of State for Wales in 1943, and for a Welsh Day debate in the Commons.

Megan made striking contributions during the second world war. She served on consultative committees for the ministries of Health and Labour and National Service, and on the salvage board for the Ministry of Supply. She was a member of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform in 1944. But her real influence was as a leading figure on the unofficial, non-party woman power committee, concerned with the wartime employment of women and with women’s rights. She also campaigned hard for equal pay and equal compensation for wartime injuries to civilians. All backbench women MPs met in February 1940 to demand that the Government do more to give women a responsible role in the war effort. On one of the rare debates on women and the war on 20 March 1941, she made a powerful speech in favour of placing trust in existing women’s organisations:

Why not have representative conferences in areas of this country of skilled women’s organisations? They have the experience, they have branches in every town and village in the country, and they can really help the Ministry; they can save time, energy, money, and paper—which to a salvage-minded person like myself is of the utmost importance. But, after all, as has been pointed out in the Debate, in this war women have given their services freely in the Auxiliary Fire Services, in Civil Defence and in the Auxiliary Fighting Services, and they have shown, and are proving week by week, that they are prepared to take the same risks as men, if they are called upon to do so, in the front line. Do now take this opportunity, when you are starting this registration, when you are starting a new campaign to mobilise the woman-power of the country, of asking them to come in and help you with their skill, their organising capacity, ability and experience, and you will find that they will not fail you, but will give you the same steadfast co-operation in this generation as they did in 1914–18.

As the end of the war approached, she campaigned for the Liberals to aligned with the left, rejecting any alliance with the ‘National Liberals’. She was returned at Anglesey with a much reduced majority over her Labour opponent at the 1945 general election.  When made deputy leader of the Liberal parliamentary party in January 1949, she demanded that the party shed right-wing elements, and often opposed Lady Violet Bonham Carter. In the parliament of 1950–51, with two other Liberals, she was criticised for often voting with the Labour government in defiance of official party policy. In 1951 she was defeated by her Labour opponent after more than twenty-two years in the House.

After 1951 Lady Megan was much more involved with Welsh affairs. She was president of the Parliament for Wales campaign, which attracted over a quarter of a million signatures. In April 1955 she finally announced that she was joining the Labour Party, as it now seemed to be the essential voice of British radicalism. Her opportunity to return to the Commons came in a by-election at Carmarthen in February 1957, just after the Suez crisis. In a fiercely fought contest she defeated her Liberal opponent by over 3000 votes. In three subsequent general elections she built up her majority to over 9000.

Although Labour were grateful to her for attracting many former Liberal voters to the party, she was not rewarded with a front bench position. She now took part in debates mainly on Welsh questions and agriculture, The March 1966 general election was fought in her absence through ill health. Soon afterwards, on 14 May 1966, she died of cancer. In the resulting by-election, a male Welsh Nationalist was returned for the first time.

In almost thirty years in the Commons, she never attained office. She was a back-bencher when she died, but had influenced  Welsh and British politics in many ways, as well as being a talented  broadcaster and member of the BBC advisory council.

The wider picture

Despite Megan’s impressive trailblazing career, Wales lagged behind England in terms of the number of women MPs elected.  In 2018 only 19 women had ever represented Welsh seats, almost entirely in South Wales. In 2015 Liz Saville Roberts became the first Plaid Cymru female MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. In 2017 11 women were elected in Wales, a considerable increase on 4 in 1997. To date, no Conservative woman candidate for Parliament has been elected in Wales.

However, the National Assembly for Wales has achieved greater gender parity; in 2003 it had an equal number of women and men Members. This is generally attributed to positive action to select women candidates by the Labour Party, which tends to dominate elections in Wales. In 2012, Plaid Cymru elected its first female leader in Leanne Wood, an Assembly Member, who served as leader until 2018.

Dame Cheryl Gillan: First woman Secretary of State for Wales

 Dame Cheryl Gillan is a Conservative MP, first elected in 1992 for Chesham and Amersham.  Currently, she is the longest serving Conservative female MP. She was born in Cardiff and became Shadow Secretary of State for Wales in 2005 and subsequently served as Secretary of State for Wales 2010-12.

 Lady Rhondda and the battle for women to sit in the Lords

It was not until 1958 that the first women took their seats in the Lords, and these were life peers, appointed under the Life Peerages Act of that year.  However, a Welsh woman had led a highly public campaign in the 1920s to be allowed to take her seat as a hereditary peer. This was Lady Rhondda, a noted feminist and suffragette. Between 1908 and the outbreak of the First World War, when the WSPU suspended its operations, Margaret organised public meetings, inviting such speakers as Emmeline Pankhurst, and she herself spoke from public platforms on many occasions, often to hostile audiences. During the General Election of 1910, following the militant policy of harassing Cabinet ministers, she broke through a police cordon and jumped on to the running board of Prime Minister Asquith’s car. In 1913 she burned the contents of a pillar box, was arrested, tried, and found guilty. she was sent to Usk gaol, where she proceeded to go on hunger strike but was not forcibly fed; she was released after five days.

Parliament’s Living Heritage webpages give further background on her suffrage and wartime activities

Her father had been given a peerage in 1918 in recognition of his war work, and on his death in July 1918 Margaret inherited his peerage. In a famous test case, she petitioned in 1920 for the right to receive a writ of summons to Parliament, basing her claim on the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which stated that ‘A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function.’

Her petition was considered by the House of Lords Committee for Privileges, which initially found in her favour. But the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, arranged for the matter to be referred back to an expanded Privileges Committee, where it reversed its decision in May 1922. Women with inherited peerages could not sit in their own right in the Lords until the Peerage Act 1963.

Margaret Haig Thomas by Alice Mary Burton
Portrait of Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda, Oil Painting by Alice Mary Burton, Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holder © Unknown Photo Credit: Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 7177

Between the wars Lady Rhondda was arguably Britain’s leading feminist. Equal rights were central to her philosophy and she put enormous efforts into promoting her vision. In 1920 she set up the feminist weekly journal Time and Tide; in 1921 she launched the Six Point Group, which focused on what she regarded as the six key issues for women (mainly relating to child custody, equal pay, and equal opportunities); and in 1926, along with other feminists, she set up the Open Door Council to campaign against ‘protective’ legislation for women. Time and Tide was for Lady Rhondda the fulfilment of a childhood dream. from 1926 she took over as editor. In that year she attracted a great deal of publicity as the first woman president of the Institute of Directors. To ensure that the journal was taken seriously Lady Rhondda gathered around her a distinguished group of women writers, who included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Delafield, Rose Macaulay, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Rebecca West: she was eager to promote young women writers such as Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain.

Lady Rhondda’s commitment to Time and Tide meant that she spent most of her time in London but she retained her links with Wales, including her mother’s former house at Pen Ithon, and served on public bodies in Wales. She died in the Westminster Hospital, London, on 20 July 1958.

Oonagh Gay

UK Vote 100 volunteer



Megan Lloyd George Dictionary of National Biography entry by Kenneth O Morgan

Margaret Haig Thomas Dictionary of National Biography entry by Deidre Beddoe

Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda by Angela V John 2013

Historic Hansard database https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/sittings/C20

Womens Equality Network Wales  100 Welsh Women  http://www.100welshwomen.wales/

BBC Wales Hidden Heroines January 2019