Strickland, Mabel (1899–1988)

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Strickland, Mabel (1899–1988)

Maltese newspaper publisher and political figure who was regarded as the most powerful woman in the Mediterranean region for a period after World War II. Name variations: Malta's Miss Mabel; "the Boadicca (Boudica ) of Malta." Born Mabel Edeline Strickland on Malta on January 8, 1899; died in Lija, Malta, on November 29, 1988; daughter of Baron Gerald Strickland of Sizergh Castle, Kendal (6th count della Catena of Malta), and Lady Edeline Sackville Strickland; had two sisters; never married.

Mabel Strickland was born on the island of Malta into an aristocratic world of privilege when Queen Victoria was in the 62nd year of her reign. At the time of Strickland's birth in 1899, her father served as chief secretary to the governor of Malta, and he would subsequently have a distinguished career in the colonial service, advancing to the governorships of several of the states that would later form the Commonwealth of Australia. Mabel's family could boast of impeccable bloodlines. Her father Gerald Strickland, Baron of Sizergh Castle, Kendal, in Cumbria, England, was a Royal Navy officer from one of England's best-established Roman Catholic families. From his Maltese mother, he inherited the title of count della Catena. Mabel's mother, who had been born Lady Edeline Sackville , was the daughter of the earl De La Warr. Leaving Malta for Australia as a child, Mabel was educated by a succession of governesses and to her eternal regret never learned the Maltese language. When the Stricklands returned to Malta in 1917, Mabel worked briefly at Royal Navy headquarters as a cipher officer on the staff of the R.N. commander in chief, Mediterranean.

By 1921, she had entered public life as an assistant secretary with her father's Constitutional Party. By the end of the 1920s, she was familiar with virtually every aspect of Maltese public life, including the growing pressure from Fascist Italy to lay claim to the island by involving itself in its often turbulent politics. During her father's tenure as Malta's prime minister (1927–32), Mabel played an important role as his advisor and as an interpreter of public opinion. As Italian demands grew more insistent in the 1930s, she informed the Italian consul general that he would be ill advised to display the Italian flag on his automobile, for a Fascist Italian on Malta stood a good chance of being "hunted down like a scabby dog." Fascists responded in kind by describing her as "Malta's She-Devil." Starting in 1935, Mabel Strickland was able to take on the Italians on a daily basis in the family-owned newspapers she edited, The Times of Malta and the Italian-language Il-Berqa. She took advantage of her editorial position not only to attack Mussolini's claims to Malta, but also to offer suggestions on social and economic development for the island that would increase its prosperity and make it less dependent on the naval base that made Malta so important a part of the British Empire.

The people of Malta were heroic during World War II. Their strategically located island, only 20 minutes' flying time south of Sicily, began to be bombed as soon as Mussolini entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany, on June 10, 1940. Massive air raids turned Malta into the most heavily bombed area in the world, but its people refused to surrender. Until more modern Hurricane and Spitfire planes arrived, Malta's air defense consisted of three Gladiator biplane fighters affectionately known as Faith, Hope, and Charity. The relentless air attacks soon resulted in the destruction of the offices of both of the Strickland newspapers. But Mabel, aware of how important the survival of her papers were to island morale, printed them in a rock cavern carved out beneath the capital city of Valletta. Although she never missed an issue, several did appear with fire-charred edges.

Malta's remaining out of Italian hands was essential for the survival of the British Empire. Since Mabel regarded the empire as the bulwark of Western civilization, she identified with the British as they withstood the Blitz in 1940–41. When The Times of London suffered bomb damage to its offices in October 1940, she wired the editor: "Times of Malta sends greetings and congratulations on your and your colleagues' escape and on your great achievement of uninterrupted publication regardless severe German bombing Times famous offices." The year 1940 was difficult for Strickland; it marked the start of her beloved Malta's fight for its very existence, and her father died as well. With Baron Strickland's passing, Mabel became de facto leader of his Constitutional Party, and also took on the responsibility of managing the family's business interests, particularly its two newspapers.

As the war dragged on with no apparent end in sight, Strickland never gave up hope. In February 1942, she cabled The Times to report to Britishers on the situation on her "indomitable island":

For some 80 days in Malta there has been a period of almost continuous alert with few respites. Days and nights have been enlivened by the sound of air battles, anti-aircraft guns in action, and the whistling and crash of bombs. With this we have had to chronicle the wider happenings in the outside world, far-off Singapore and close-up Libya; but the spirit of Malta burns brightly…. Malta's chief consolation in her trial is that her defence is not static, that she is the target that hits back.

On April 15, 1942, King George VI made a gesture unique in British imperial history by awarding the entire Maltese nation the George Cross in recognition of its bravery under fire—an honor still proudly borne by the national flag in a post-colonial Malta.

Strickland was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her wartime devotion to duty in 1944. In the final months of World War II, she was a war correspondent for her newspapers, attached to the 21st Army Group of the British Army of the Rhine. As well, her keen interest in gardening (she was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society) took practical form in the large quantities of oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines she grew on her land which helped to feed the island's children.

The postwar era began for Malta in a world which saw the rapid decline and demise of the British Empire. These stresses were reflected in Strickland's Constitutional Party, which remained staunchly pro-British in orientation. On internal issues, the party was socially conservative, opposing direct taxes and any increase in inheritance taxes. By the end of 1945, the party was in crisis over many issues, and in February 1946 it was dissolved.

A new stage in Maltese political life began in 1947 when a nascent constitution established universal suffrage. A small but increasingly confident feminist movement had appeared on the scene on the eve of the war, one of its most vigorous leaders being Inez Soler (1910–1974). In 1945, in response to Malta's mood of rising expectations, the island's male political elite had appointed three women—Mrs. J. Burns Debono, Helen Buhagiar , and Mabel Strickland—to the National Assembly, but continued to deny suffrage to women. The conservative Roman Catholic Church objected strongly to giving women the right to vote, but in July 1945, by a poll of 145 to 137, they were given the ballot. In the general elections of October 1947, two women, Agatha Barbara (1923—) and Helen Buhagiar, ran for seats in the new Legislative Assembly. Of the two, only Agatha Barbara was successful. She went on to have a thriving career in politics, becoming the first Maltese woman to hold a Cabinet post (minister of education, 1955), and in 1982 capped her career by becoming the first woman president of Malta, a post she would hold until 1987.

In 1950, Strickland resigned her editorial positions to make a successful run for a seat in the Legislative Assembly as candidate of a revived Constitutional Party that was now her pliant personal instrument. During this period, she was often referred to both in Malta and the United Kingdom as being the most powerful woman in the Mediterranean region, something that seemed to be reconfirmed in 1951 when she was reelected to her assembly seat. Looking forward to the day when she might become Malta's first woman head of government, in 1953 she organized a new party, the Progressive Constitutional Party (PCP). But the tides of history moved strongly against the conservative ideals in which she so deeply believed. In the 1955 elections, PCP candidates performed pathetically, polling only 3,649 votes out of a total of 121,243 and failing to win a single seat in the Legislative Assembly.

The rise of militant nationalism linked to a desire for social reforms brought about a powerful labor movement and its political wing, the Malta Labour Party led by its fiery architect, Dom Mintoff. Although Strickland was able to win a seat in 1962 (which she held until 1966) as the candidate of her Progressive Constitutional Party, her colonial-rooted view of the world was in eclipse. In other ways, too, Strickland's political aspirations were doomed. Conservative Maltese values continued to argue against women moving into positions of high political leadership. Once, pointing to her ample breasts, Strickland exclaimed, "If it wasn't for these I would be Prime Minister of Malta." Her inability to speak the Maltese language also proved to be a significant handicap during political campaigns.

The elections of 1971 were bitterly contested, and Strickland braved stones and verbal attacks. In the elections, neither she nor any other Progressive Constitutional candidate won a legislative seat. Despite the risks, her newspapers continued to censure the Mintoff government, accusing it of being un-democratic and anti-Western. In response, Labour militants launched systematic attacks on her papers, which culminated in a fire-bombing in October 1979 that destroyed the editorial offices and computer room of The Times of Malta. Not only machinery, but irreplaceable records were destroyed. By now frail, Mabel Strickland was shaken by the destruction of her beloved newspaper, and her health never recovered.

At the time of the attack, she received a handwritten note from Mintoff, who expressed regret for the actions of "some hotheads," noting as well that in recent years he "had made it a point to protect [The Times of Malta] better than if it had been my own…. It is not in my style to crush opposition." Despite the massive

destruction, The Times of Malta was on the streets the following day, just as it had been during World War II. Mabel Strickland was a semi-invalid confined to her home during the last years of her life, dying in Lija, Malta, on November 29, 1988. With the cooling of the political passions of her era, most Maltese now remember "Miss Mabel" with nostalgic fondness, a clear indication of which was her being depicted on a commemorative postage stamp issued in her honor on April 24, 1996.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia