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Celebrating a suffragette

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WNO, Lady Rhondda, Musical, Rhondda Rips It Up, suffragetteWelsh National Opera has chosen to celebrate the life of Lady Rhondda in a number of ways.

Suffragette, activist and entrepreneur, Newport’s Lady Rhondda was one of many who paved the way for the equal rights for women.

As well as campaigning tirelessly for women’s suffrage, she became the lightning rod for women’s efforts during WW1, survived the sinking of the Lusitania and created the radical feminist magazine Time and Tide.

Her indefatigable efforts and endeavours were finally rewarded when, in 1918, women over the age of 30 were enfranchised.

The Welsh National Opera (WNO) is showcasing Lady Rhondda’s fight for liberty, survival and equality in a number of ways, from community events, talks and schools workshops to exhibitions, interactive digital experiences as well as a new stage production ‘Rhondda Rips It Up!’ by composer Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins, a 10-piece band led by conductor Nicola Rose and able support from the WNO Community Chorus.

Margaret Haig Thomas – later known as Lady Rhondda –  was a highly influential suffragette whose activities in and around the Newport area helped to implement change for women in the personal, political and professional worlds.

In 1908 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and became secretary of its Newport branch and a supporter of its militant campaign.

Between 1908 and 1914 she took the campaign for women’s suffrage across South Wales, often to hostile and stormy meetings.

She joined forces with the Pankhursts, jumped onto the running board of Prime Minister HH Asquith’s car, and attempted to destroy a post-box in Newport with a home-made chemical bomb. These activities resulted in her serving time in prison at Usk. She was released after going on a hunger strike.

After the outbreak of the First World War, and the decision by the WSPU leadership to abandon its militant campaign for suffrage, she joined her father, who was sent by David Lloyd George to the United States to arrange the supply of munitions for the British armed forces.

In May 1915, she, her father and his secretary were travelling back to Britain on the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine – all three survived.

Her father was created Baron Rhondda in 1916 and then Viscount Rhondda in 1918.

After her father’s death, she tried to take his seat in the House of Lords, citing the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to exercise ‘any public office’, but the Committee of Privileges, after an initially warm reaction, eventually voted strongly against Lady Rhondda’s plea.

However, less than a month after her own death, in 1958, women entered the House of Lords for the first time thanks to the Life Peerages Act 1958; five years later, with the passage of the Peerage Act 1963, hereditary peeresses were also allowed to enter the House of Lords.

In 1920 she founded political and literary review magazine Time and Tide, which she also edited from 1926 until her death.

In 1908 she married Sir Humphrey Mackworth. They divorced in 1923, and she never remarried. She lived with Time and Tide magazine’s editor Helen Archdale in the late 1920s, and later ‘had a close relationship’ with Winifred Holtby, the author of South Riding, who was in a “friendship” with the writer Vera Brittain. She subsequently spent 25 years living with writer and editor Theodora Bosanquet, who was secretary to Henry James from 1907-1916.

In the business world she was a director of 33 companies, and had inherited 28 directorships from her father. The majority of her business interests were in coal, steel and shipping.

As Lady Rhondda, she was elected as the Institute of Directors’ first female president in 1926, and in 2015 the annual Mackworth Lecture was launched by the Institute of Directors (IoD) in her honour.

Welsh National Opera has chosen to celebrate the life of this extraordinary woman in a number of ways.

As well as an on-stage production, a variety of events will be held across Wales and England to encourage participation by communities, organisations and schools.

These include Come and Sing events, where you can join members of the Company for pre-show singing; a female Community Chorus which will be involved in the theatre performances; banner making workshops with Year 6 and 7 pupils in a number of schools and a mixed reality digital experience.

WNO will also be hosting a ‘Women in Music’ symposium in Newport aimed at examining the challenges faced by women in the classical music world.

Keep checking wno.org.uk/rhondda for updates and to see how you can get involved.

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