The Rhondda Case
Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958) was the daughter of David Alfred ('D.A.') Thomas, first Viscount Rhondda (1856–1918), a member of the House of Lords. As he had no sons he had made a special request for her daughter to be able to take his title after he died. However this did not entitle her to take his seat in the Upper House.
One of the leading equalitarian feminists of her day, Lady Rhondda founded a pressure group called the Six Point Group and a feminist journal called 'Time And Tide'. She had been a militant suffragette in her youth, and had been jailed for setting fire to a post-box. In prison she went on hunger strike.
She was determined to take her father’s seat in the Lords and based her claim on the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 which stated that "a woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function".
Her case was referred to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and was heard in 1922. Initially the Committee found in her favour but this decision was soon reversed following opposition from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith).
Private Members Bills
Between 1924 and 1928 in the aftermath of the Rhondda case, various Bills were introduced into the Lords proposing that hereditary women peers should be able to sit in the Upper House.
Viscount Astor, the husband of Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, also introduced a series of motions in the Lords to allow Peeresses to sit in the House, all of which were unsuccessful.
After the Second World War, there was renewed interest in the subject. A pressure group was formed, chaired by Edward Iwi, which collected a petition of 50,000 signatures, although it was never presented to Parliament.
On the 2 March 1948 another petition was presented to the House of Lords which bore the signatures of Lady Rhondda and Lady Ravensdale. The latter – formerly Irene Curzon - would become one of the first women to sit in the Lords.
The Lords vote in favour
On the 27 July 1949 the Lords voted on its composition. Although no legislation followed, this vote established for the first time that the House of Lords was in favour of admitting women.
Life Peerages Act 1958
But it was not until the Life Peerages Act 1958 that women were finally allowed to sit in the Upper House as life peers. Viscountess Rhondda lived to see the passage of the Life Peerages Act, but died on 20 July 1958, before the first women took their seats as life peers in the Lords in October.
Hereditary women peers were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords after the Peerage Act 1963.
Find out more about women and the House of Lords