By Tirion Davies
International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the amazing women in history. From women in science to activists, everyone can appreciate a woman who has changed the world.
Within Welsh history, it’s often that women get left in the shadows. There are women in Welsh history with influential pasts but who are very rarely recognised as important figures.
A statue of Betty Campbell will be erected outside of Central Square’s BBC building in Spring of this year, marking the statue as the first in Wales to feature an influential woman in history. Although there are various statues of women across Wales, including one on Cardiff Queen Street, none depict historical women.
Cardiff’s City Hall is home to numerous statues depicting Welsh figures in history, including Welsh rebellion leader Owain Glyndwr and 12th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and a statue of Aneurin Bevan, who was instrumental in creating the NHS in Britain stands proudly at the bottom of Cardiff’s Queen Street overlooking Cardiff Castle. These statues are incredibly important in remembering the people who changed the course of history in Wales, but it seems about time the women who were also incredibly important in Welsh history receive the recognition they deserve.
Women in Welsh history are not few and far between, but it’s unlikely you’ll meet many people who are able to name more than two or three. Here is the run-down on the many women history forgot, and who we hope they will not forget again.
- Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd – Princess Consort of Deheubarth
A key figure in Welsh battle, Gwenllian was the daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd, who married Gruffydd ap Rhys of the ancient Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth in 1116. At the beginning of the Welsh uprising in 1136, in her husband’s absence and with her sons in the army, Gwenllian led an attack on the Norman fortress fo Kidwelly. She was captured during the battle and was executed (despite this being abnormal for a woman of the time to be executed). The spot where it happened is still known as Maes Gwenllian.
Gwenllian is the only known example of a medieval woman to lead a Welsh army into battle. Her story henceforth became legendary and for centuries following her death, Welshmen would cry out ‘Revenge for Gwenllian’ during battle in her honour. Her patriotic revolt and subsequent murder sparked several further uprisings.
- Bridget Bevan aka Madam Bevan
Bridget Bevan (1698 – 1779) was chief supporter of Griffith Jones and his system of circulating schools, The Circulating Welsh Charity School. The system moved from village to village throughout Welsh, offering education for underprivileged children and adults, in the Welsh language. Madam Bevan used a majority of her considerable wealth to support these free schools, and she even took over managing the project for over 18 years.
Between 1736 and 1776, 6,321 schools were founded by Bevan and Jones, with 304, 475 scholars taught. Wales achieved one of the highest literacy rates in Europe, and news of the school’s success even reached Catherine the Great in Russia, who ordered her ministers to make inquiries.
- Lucy Thomas
Lucy Thomas (1781 – 1847) is known by many as the mother of the Welsh coal trade. Following her husband’s death in 1833, Lucy took over her husband’s business. Her husband had discovered a rich coal seam in Merthyr but Lucy was the one to turn it into one of the most successful mines in Wales.
Lucy once attended the coal exchange in Cardiff, only to be told she was not permitted entry. She sent a male clerk into the exchange with a note from Lucy, informing the coal exchange ‘My coal is equal to any mans, failure to grant entry will lead to my business lining another’s pockets’. Despite the fact Lucy was illiterate, she was the first person to export steam coal from Wales. By her death in 1847, Lucy had increased the value of her husband’s business to over £11,000.
- Lady Charlotte Guest
Lady Charlotte Guest is most well-known in Wales for her translation of the Welsh Mabinogion. Born in 1812 and later married to Welsh ironmaster Josiah John Guest (who ran the vast Dowlais Iron Company, which became the largest ironworks in the world), Charlotte was incredibly intelligent and educated.
Charlotte’s translation of the 11 stories of the Mabinogion and the Tale of Taliesin was the only English translation of the Welsh prose until the mid 20th century. Lady Charlotte Guest’s work is incredibly impressive, in particular as she taught herself Middle Welsh from scratch in order to complete the translation.
- Frances Hoggan
Frances Hoggan (1843 – 1927) was a doctor from Brecon who played a significant role in the battle for women in Britain to study medicine in the nineteenth century. After being barred from sitting exams to become a doctor in Britain, Frances traveled to Zurich to study medicine. She would become the first woman in Britain to receive a doctorate in medicine in any university in Europe.
She was also the first female doctor to be registered in Britain and opened the first husband-and-wife medical practice in Britain. Frances was also a campaigner for sanitary education, the suffrage movement, female education and even civil rights in America.
- Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda
Born Margaret Haig-Thomas (1883 – 1958), Margaret Mackworth is Wales’ most famous suffragette. In her youth, Margaret brought Emmeline Pankhurst to Wales, confronted Prime Minister Asquith after jumping on his car and even set fire to a post box.
In the First World War, she ensured women were able to play a vital role – recruiting them into women’s services. She became Chief Controller of women’s recruitment at the Ministry of National Service in London and even survived the sinking of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed during the war, claiming over 1,100 lives.
Margaret sat on the board of 33 companies, chairing seven of them, and oversaw an industrial empire of mines, shipping, and newspapers; she was the first and only woman to become President of the Institute of Directors. Lady Rhondda is the reason women of today are able to sit on the House of Lords, having campaigned for female peers for 40 years, although she, unfortunately, died before she was able to see the law come into effect.
- Megan Lloyd-George
Megan Lloyd-George (1902 – 1966) was the daughter of David Lloyd-George, but she was a political hero in her own right. In 1929, Megan Lloyd-George campaigned successfully (in Welsh, as she always did) as part of the constituency of Anglesey to join her father and brother in the House of Commons, becoming Wales’ first-ever female MP. She was also Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.
This list is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incredible women Wales has produced. There are, of course, Welsh women like Tani Grey-Thompson, Grace Coddington and more who are the modern women who have changed the world. This piece was to highlight the women history seemed to forget – the women of the past who don’t earn the credit they deserve. In order to offer enough information on each and every Welsh woman who have changed the world, every page of Gair Rhydd would need to be utilised.
To see a list of Welsh women worth researching, visit the ‘Hidden Heroines’ page on BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/4Tz2cH6JnlT0Rc1kwRyWkx6/hidden-heroines
For the longlist of women included in the ‘Hidden Heroines’ campaign, visit: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/legendary-women-who-could-made-14624698