Margaret Mary Edith (May) Tennant (née Abraham), promoter of workers’ rights and public health, is born April 5, 1869 at Rathgar, County Dublin, the only daughter of Dr. George Whitley Abraham, a lawyer in the civil service, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Cornelius Curtain.
Abraham is educated at home by her father. Following his death in 1887, finding herself in financial straits, she moves to London, where she takes lodgings in Bloomsbury and works for Lady Emilia Dilke. Dilke is a social reformer and an advocate of trade unions for women, and as her secretary Margaret gains first-hand experience of the exploitative and unsanitary conditions afflicting women working in industry, a cause that she devotes the next decade to ameliorating. She is treasurer of the Womens’ Trade Union League, where she negotiates with employers on behalf of league members, organises meetings, and sends deputations to the House of Commons. From 1881 she coordinates a successful campaign to render regular government inspections of laundries mandatory (legislation is passed to this effect in 1908).
Abraham’s dedication to her work soon attracts wider recognition, and in 1891 she is appointed an assistant commissioner to undertake field inquiries for the Royal Labour Commission. In this capacity she travels incessantly throughout England and Ireland, gathering information and writing reports on often appalling working conditions. It is mainly because of this work that in 1893 the home secretary appoints her the first female factory inspector in England. Her new position marks a career shift from agitator to skillful and effective administrator. Traveling incessantly, the inspectors target illegal overtime, poor sanitation, and dangerous trades. In her first year alone she brings eighty prosecutions for illegal overtime.
In 1895 Abraham serves on a departmental committee at the Home Office on dangerous trades, where she meets Harold John Tennant, liberal MP for Berwickshire. The couple are married the following year, and have four sons and one daughter.
By 1896 Tennant is the superintending inspector of five more women inspectors, and her extensive experience in workers’ rights and public health is reflected in the book she publishes in that year, The law relating to factories and workshops, which runs to six editions. She finds it increasingly difficult to balance the pressures of her work with the demands of her private life, and she resigns her post soon after her marriage. However, she remains a committed social activist, serving as chairman of the Industrial Law Committee and on the Royal Commission on Divorce (1909). She is also an original member and treasurer of the Central Committee on Women’s Employment (1914–39).
During the World War I Tennant is chief adviser on women’s welfare to the Ministry of Munitions and director of the Women’s Department of the National Service Department. In recognition of her services the British government awards her the Companion of Honour in 1917, the same year that her eldest son, Harry, dies while on active service. Between the wars she turns her attention to women’s health, campaigning to improve maternal mortality and nursing care.
During the World War II, despite her failing health, Tennant works for the RAF Benevolent Fund. She is a member of the Central Consultative Council of Voluntary Organisations and the National Association for Prevention of Tuberculosis, chairman of the maternal health committee, governor of Bedford College, and a JP. She is also a director of the Mysore and Champion Reef Gold Mines, an enterprise of her husband’s family, and in this capacity travels to India and New Zealand in the mid-1920s.
The Tennants have homes in Edinglasserie, Aberdeenshire, and at 12 Victoria Square, London, as well as a restored country house, Great Maytham, at Rolvenden in Kent. She is a noted authority on gardening, and is director of The Gardener’s Chronicle (other interests included fishing, tennis, and gambling). After her husband’s death in 1935 she moves to a smaller house named Cornhill at Great Maytham, where she dies on July 11, 1946. Some of her correspondence is in the British Library, London.
(From: “Tennant (née Abraham), Margaret Mary Edith (May),” contributed by Sinéad Sturgeon and Georgina Clinton, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)