Formally the Viscountess Rhondda's Claim (1922) A.C. 339.

A peeress in her own right

Generally speaking most hereditary peerage titles granted within the United Kingdom have been granted to men and can only be inherited by the male heirs of the original grantee. There are a few examples of women being awarded titles as well a small number of peerage titles, principally some of the more ancient English baronies, many titles in the Peerage of Scotland and the odd specific exception such as that of the Duke of Marlborough and the Viscount Rhondda where women were permitted to inherit. But although a woman could inherit a title and thus become a peeress suo jure, that is a peeress in her own right1, she was prevented from exercising one of the most important of the privileges of peers namely that of sitting in the House of Lords.

There was nothing particularly notable or exceptional about this discriminatory treatment of hereditary peeresses as it simply reflected society's general view about women's role in public life and it was not until the early twentieth century with the emergence of the Suffragette movement with its demand of 'Votes for Women', that this attitude was seriously challenged.

The Sex Disqualifiation (Removal) Act 1919

In 1918 the British Wartime Coalition government led by David Lloyd George had successfully extended the franchise to include women2, and in the November 1918 election Lloyd George was returned to office at the head of a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives having pledged during the general election campaign to introduce legislation removing any remaining legal restrictions on the participation of women in public life.

Once elected however, the government appeared to be dragging its feet on the issue and so in 1919 the Labour Party introduced its own Women's Emancipation Bill which, amongst other things, promised women the vote at twenty-one and specifically entitled peeresses to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Much to surprise of the government this bill went as far as a third reading in the House of Commons, and thus stung into action it introduced its own Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill. However its enthusiasm for this measure was somewhat muted as the Lord Chancellor, Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Baron Birkenhead commonly known as the Lord Birkenhead demonstrated when he spoke for the bill in the House of Lords, describing its contents as being "to many extremely disagreeable".

Neverthless the Bill duly passed into law with section 1 proudly proclaiming that;

A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation...
(With the remainder of the act largely dealing with those circumstances when such a disqualification could be applied.)

The Viscountess Rhondda's Claim

To Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda, former suffragette and colloquially known as 'The Welsh Boadicea', the meaning of this section was quite clear. As a peeress in her own right by succession to her father, she now felt entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords as this was clearly a "public function" within the meaning of aforementioned section 1. Therefore the Lady Rhondda contended that she was entitled to receive a writ of summons in the same way as any other peer of the realm.

Despite the prima facie logic of this claim it was contested by many existing peers, most notably the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead, and although the Committee for Privileges initially came to the view that Lady Rhondda's interpretation of the act was correct, Lord Birkenhead persuaded the House to refer the matter back to the Committee for reconsideration. By a margin of twenty-two votes to four the Committee duly rejected Lady Rhondda's claim, thus confirming as a matter of law that peeresses were not entitled to a seat in the House.

The Committee noted that although the letters patent for the peerage title Viscount of Rhondda allowed the title to pass to a female heir it also specifically reserved the privilege of a seat in Parliament only to male holders of the title. It further decided that the words of section 1 were simply too general to cover so important a matter as the status of peeresses in the House of Lords, believing that if Parliament had intended this to be the case it could easily have done so. As it happens there was plenty of evidence that this precisely what the House of Commons had in fact intended in the first place but as was so often the case in matters of Peerage Law, their lordships held that the law was what they wanted it to be.

The terror of the House of Lords

Margaret Thomas' complaint was not so much that there were twenty or so women (herself included) who were thus denied the right to a seat in the Lords but rather that "the refusal to admit women to the House of Lords has just slightly lowered the status of all women so that it is just a little more unlikely that any professional or working woman will get a fair chance ungoverned by the accident of her sex."

However the Welsh Boadicea was not easily dissuaded and continued her campaign for parity in this matter, so much so that George Bernard Shaw described her as "the terror of the House of Lords". Since the 1919 act was seemingly insufficient to grant women equality in this matter she decided that new legislation was called for. She drafted her own bill and persuaded the Viscount Astor3 to put it forward in the House of Lords. Between 1924 and 1930 the consideration (and rejection) of this bill became something of an annual event in the House of Lords and in 1925 it got within two votes of being passed. However this only served to excite the likes of the Lord Birkenhead to turn up in greater numbers to defend the House from such seditious ideas. The problem was that many hereditary peers viewed the House of Lords as little more than an exclusive gentleman's club to which women should on no account be admitted.

Margaret Thomas continued her campaign and in the late 1940s organised a petition designed to demonstrate the level of public support for the issue and in 1949 the House of Lords finally passed a motion in support of women's admission to the House. However the Labour Government, reneging on a previous commitment, then refused to sanction any change on the grounds that it might in some way indicate its approval of the detested hereditary principle.

Margaret Haig Thomas died in London on the 20th July 1958, just three month after the passage of the Life Peerages Act 1958 which finally permitted women to sit in the House of Lords, although only as life peers. Ironically one of the first four female life peers created was Lady Ravensdale4 a hereditary peeress in her own right. It was not until five years later, with the Peerage Act 1963 that hereditary peeresses were finally admitted to the House of Lords, at which time the Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir5 rather apologetically admitted "the exclusion of hereditary peeresses from this house is something of which we have all been secretly ashamed".


NOTES

1 To be distinguished from a woman who adopted a peerage title by right of her husband as a mere courtesy.
2 In the Representation of the People Act 1918 which extended the franchise to women over thirty.
3 This would be Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor and husband of Nancy Witcher Langhorne, the Lady Astor who was the first women to take a seat in the House of Commons in 1919.
4 Mary Irene Curzon, Baroness Ravensdale inherited from her father George Nathaniel Curzon, Earl Curzon the title of Baron Ravensdale and was additionally granted the title of Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston for life on the 6th October 1958.
5 Being David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe, Earl of Kilmuir


SOURCES

  • F A R Bennion The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 - 60 Inglorious Years 129 New Law Journal (1979) 1088. reproduced at http://www.francisbennion.com/doc/fb/1979/005/sexdisqualremoval01.htm
  • Duncan Sutherland The Admission of Women to the House of Lords http://www.qub.ac.uk/cawp/research/pitor.htm
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for PEERAGE
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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