Margaret, Lady Rhondda (1883-1958)

Born: Margaret Haig Thomas; also known as Mrs Humphrey Mackworth

Sector: Media

Lady Rhondda is one of the best known of the women in the FT-She 100. Campaigner, magazine editor, shipwreck survivor and peer of the realm, she was regularly in the news during her lifetime. She wrote an autobiography in 1933 and two comprehensive biographies have been written about her since her death; the Welsh National Opera created a ‘bawdy celebration’ of her life show in 2018, ‘Rhondda Rips It Up’; there is currently a campaign underway for a statue to be put up in her honour (let’s hope she doesn’t suffer the same fate as Mary Wollstonecraft… ). She was recently discussed by Lady Hale, former President of the Supreme Court and famous for her spider brooch, in the Great Lives series on BBC Radio 4.

Margaret Haig Thomas (1883-1958) later Margaret, Lady Rhondda
Margaret, Viscountess Rhondda, c. 1920s.

Margaret was in an unusually influential position compared to other business women during this period. She was blessed with wealthy and progressive parents who were hugely supportive of their only child. She had a top-notch secondary education and won a place to read History at Somerville College, Oxford, though dropped out after two terms. Her father, a successful industrialist, made her his second-in-command when she was in her late 20s. While Gordon Holmes, the financier, and Alice Head, editor of Good Housekeeping, were starting out in secretarial roles earning £1 a week as a secretary, Margaret’s first job working for her father earned her 20x that amount, an equivalent of £125,000 per annum, as well as giving her unique insight into board-level business dealings.

Aged 31 when the First World War broke out, she expanded her scope beyond the family businesses, becoming chief controller of women’s service within the Ministry of National Service. Her father’s death in 1918 left her rich, on the board of 31 companies, seven of which she chaired, and a peer in her own right. Despite being a shy child, Margaret turned into an extraordinary networker in the inter-war period. She had her fingers in numerous pies but broadly her activities to create greater gender equality fell into three buckets: increasing the representation of women in business, influencing policy and amplifying women’s voices through the magazine she started in 1920, Time and Tide.

One of Margaret’s first acts after the end of the First World War was to found the Efficiency Club for Business and Professional Women in 1919, aimed at ‘thinking women’. It sought greater co-operation between men and women in business, promoted ‘more courage and leadership’ amongst women and provided opportunities for the broader education of women through exchanges of thoughts and experiences. One of the first speakers was advertising head-honcho, Charles Higham, who told members how to earn £10,000 a year. ‘That’s the kind of club of which to be a member’, commented one newspaper. Five years later Margaret was the first Chair of the Women’s Provisional Club, founded by Ethel M Wood, another opportunity for business women to connect and form alliances.

Margaret was a visible role model for women in business, one of the first five members of the London Chamber of Commerce and President of the Institute of Directors in 1926. She appreciated the debt she owed her enlightened father and frequently challenged men to play a bigger role in supporting and furthering their daughters’ business ambitions. In an article on ‘Women in Business’ for Good Housekeeping in September 1923, she wrote that ‘until the average man brings his daughter into his office as naturally as he now brings his son, the business woman who desires to work up from the ranks will not get a fair chance.’ Seventy years later ‘Take Your Daughters to Work Day’ was launched in the United States and her cry has been echoed even more recently in Dads4Daughters Day in the UK. What other pearls of wisdom are lurking in century-old magazines…?

Politics ran in Margaret’s blood. Her mother, Sibyl Haig Thomas, was president of the Welsh Union of Women’s Liberal Associations and an early and prominent pro-suffragist. Although initially more aligned to the NUWSS, several members of Siby’s family, including her daughter, embraced the more radical WSPU and she became close to the Pankhursts herself, entertaining Emmeline and hosting fund-raising events. Margaret’s father, David Alfred Thomas, known as D.A., was a Liberal M.P. for 22 years.

However, Margaret was a more fervent activist than either of her parents. After attending the great suffrage procession in July 1908 she joined the WSPU and set up its Newport branch. She organised and spoke at public meetings, attacked the Prime Minister’s car and in 1913 bombed a post box, for which she spent five days in prison. After the war, entitled to vote but barred from taking her seat in the House of Lords because of her gender, she remained politically active. In March 1921, she founded the Six Point Group (SPG), in order to obtain:

  • Satisfactory legislation on child assault
  • Satisfactory legislation for the widowed mother
  • Satisfactory legislation for the unmarried mother and her child
  • Equal rights for guardianship for married parents
  • Equal pay for teachers
  • Equal opportunities for men and women in the Civil Service

Many women who had marched alongside Margaret in their white, purple and green sashes ten years earlier joined her in this new pressure group including Rebecca West, Dorothy Evans, Monica Whately and Helen Archdale. Among the organisational members were the National Union of Women Teachers, the Federation of Women Civil Servants and several local Women’s Co-operative Guilds, all pushing for one or more of these outcomes. In the early 1920s, the SPG published White and Black Lists of allies and opponents to women’s causes before general elections. It was also vocal in its objection to the Marriage Bars of the 1920s and 1930s which had women removing their wedding rings for rather different reasons than one might assume… The organisation continued to campaign for economic, social and political equality in some form until 1981.

But it was Time and Tide from which Margaret took her professional identity and that absorbed most of her energy and money. Although there were other directors, Margaret owned 90% of the shares and from 1926 led the day-to-day operations as editor. A weekly publication with fiction, essays and reviews by the leading literary and political figures of the day, this was another place where Margaret used her incredible network to the advantage of her agenda, though she was constantly torn between publishing a magazine with enough mass appeal to compete with mainstream weeklies like the New Statesman and staying true to her feminist roots.

After all women obtained the right to vote in 1928, some of the heat went out of the fight and Margaret was more prepared to make compromises on content in the search for sales. However, for most of the 1920s, ‘The Modern Weekly for the Modern Woman’ published articles highlighting a range of issues that prevented women from achieving social, economic and political equality. It advocated for better provision of early-years childcare and campaigned for women to be able to retain their nationality when they married a non-British national. (Yes, in case that historical shocker had passed you by, in 1914 a new British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act meant that British-born women automatically became ‘aliens’ if they married a foreigner and were stripped of their British citizenship, even if that left them stateless. British women were not granted the right to their own nationality regardless of marital status until 1948.) Like Gordon Holmes, Margaret was also a believer in women gaining more financial acumen and Time and Tide had a regular financial advice column.

Given the intertwined nature of her interests and her political and professional networks, it is hardly surprising that there was also crossover with Margaret’s personal relationships. In 1933 she was presented with a portrait made by the artist Alice Burton at a dinner, reconstructed here. In attendance were three women who could all have been invited because of their professional connection to Time and Tide but could equally have been there in a personal capacity. However, Margaret guarded her private life carefully and where each of these three relationships sat on the spectrum from one-sided crush to fully-fledged relationship is not clear. Helen Archdale, a war widow, was Margaret’s secretary in 1918 and then worked closely with her on setting up Time and Tide. Helen was the editor for the magazine’s first six years and she and her children also shared a house with Margaret until their personal and professional relationship broke down. Next came the writer Winifred Holtby, ardent feminist, another member of the Six Point Group and a contributor to Time and Tide as well as a director. Finally, there was Theodora Bosanquet, who worked as Henry James’s secretary in the early 1900s, taking daily dictation and tapping away at a Remington typewriter in Lamb House in Rye. She was the literary editor of Time and Tide from 1935 and she and Margaret lived together from 1934 until Margaret’s death in 1958.

There are some women in the FT-She 100 where their entry contains almost everything known about them. Viscountess Rhondda sits at the other end of the spectrum: there is so much written about her and about Time and Tide and its role in Britain between the wars that this post is just a bouncing pebble skipping across an archival lake, touching down a few times on the surface but leaving the informational depths undisturbed. If you want to do some more exploring, Time and Tide celebrated its centenary last year and on this website you can read a special souvenir edition and find a host of other resources covering magazines and magazine writing between the wars.

Sources include:
Common Cause 12/12/1919; International Woman Suffrage News November 1923
Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda by Angela V. John (2013)
‘The Modern Weekly for the Modern Woman’: Time and Tide, Feminism and Interwar Print Culture’ by Catherine Clay (2016) Women: A Cultural Review Vol 27 Issue 4 P.397-411; “Lady Rhondda and the Changing Face of British Feminism” by Muriel Mellow Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies , 1987, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1987), pp. 7-13; ‘The Women’s Equality Party: “And Everything Old is New Again”‘ by Véronique Molinari (2018) Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique XXIII-1

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