Rackham [née Tabor], Clara Dorothea (1875–1966), suffragist and political activist
by Brian Harrison

Rackham [née Tabor], Clara Dorothea (1875–1966), suffragist and political activist, was born at 44 Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, London, on 3 December 1875, the fifth and youngest child and second daughter of Henry Samuel Tabor, a nervous, pessimistic, and shy member of a Congregationalist and public-spirited farming family long settled in the Braintree area. Her mother, Emma Frances Woodcock, came from a family in Wigan which had also been active in public life. Brought up on a regime of plain food, missionary meetings, and Sunday observance, Clara (always known within the family as Dorothea) was tormented when reading Black Beauty as a young child by the suffering of horses, and became a lifelong supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She displayed a lifelong anger at cruelty and insensitivity to suffering. She accompanied her mother in performing good works and her father in sampling selected London preachers, but in 1886 she did not follow her parents into Liberal Unionism, though her earliest political activity was to canvass with her mother on the Progressive side in the London county council election of 1889.

After being educated at Notting Hill high school and then spending two happy years (1892–3) at St Leonard's College, St Andrews, Clara Tabor was a pioneer cyclist from the age of seventeen. Her ambitious cycle tours took her to many parts of England and then in 1899 to Belgium and in 1900 to Normandy; she was a cyclist for seventy years. In 1894 she attended lectures twice weekly at Bedford College, London, and in the subsequent year followed her elder sister Margaret to Newnham College, Cambridge. She led a full social life, made many friends, and captained the university women's hockey team. She was Liberal leader in Newnham College undergraduate debates, and in 1898 she was not immediately told of Gladstone's death, which occurred the day before her examination for part one of the classical tripos, for fear that her examination performance would suffer; she obtained a third. Her connection with the college persisted: she was on its governing body from 1920 to 1940 and on its council from 1924 to 1931.

On 16 March 1901 Clara married the classical scholar Harris Rackham (1868–1944), fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and brother of Arthur Rackham, the book illustrator. They had no children, but her marriage exempted her from the role of daughter-at-home, which was assumed by her sister Margaret in her place. She was a poor-law guardian in Cambridge from 1904 to 1915, joint honorary secretary of the Charity Organization Society's Cambridge branch, president of the Women's Co-operative Guild's Cambridge branch, which she founded in 1902, and contributed chapters on co-operation to Eglantyne Jebb's Cambridge: a Social Study (1906). By 1908 she was active in the Cambridge branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and was holding open-air meetings in the villages near Cambridge to promote women's suffrage; in the following year she was organizing motor tours round the villages, and was seen as ‘an excellent speaker, being remarkably clear and direct in style’ with ‘the faculty of putting herself on a level with people of little education’ (Queen, 17 April 1909). In 1910 she was elected president of the Eastern Federation of Suffrage Societies, and she soon revealed that she had other skills valuable to British feminism. She was on the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies executive committee from 1909 to 1915, and Mary Stocks recalled that when she chaired union meetings ‘she possessed a masterly capacity for guiding a large conference through a maze of resolutions and amendments without expressing personal bias, getting in a muddle herself, or allowing delegates to do so’ (Stocks, 77). She backed Millicent Fawcett in 1915 against secessionists despite supporting the Union of Democratic Control and diverging from Fawcett's support for the war.

In 1915–19 Clara Rackham was a government factory inspector while her husband taught (1915–17) at Winchester College. She was a member of the departmental committee on medical examination of young persons for factory employment in 1924 and of the departmental committee on the factory inspectorate in 1925. In 1930 she was the sole woman member of the royal commission on unemployment insurance. In the public controversy over factory legislation in 1929 between a libertarian ‘me-too feminism’ and a socialist interventionism, she opted for the latter, and argued (alongside Beatrice Webb, R. H. Tawney, and other Labour leaders) that women—less organized and more vulnerable in the labour market than men—needed special protection in factory legislation. Rather than relax the restrictions specific to women she wanted to approach equality by tightening the restrictions on men. Her short book Factory Law (1938) was businesslike, detailed, and very practical in its purpose: to summarize and explain the Factory Act of 1937, with which she was in complete sympathy.

As soon as women got the vote in 1918, Clara Rackham joined the Labour Party, which henceforth became her main preoccupation. Relieved from domestic worries by her childlessness and by her devoted housekeeper Mrs Jones—whose labours she did her best to relieve by rationalizing her domestic arrangements—she was free for such public work as a Labour activist in Cambridge could undertake. In 1919 she had been the first woman Labour councillor on Cambridge city council, on which she remained almost continuously for thirty-eight years; from 1926 to 1957 she was also on the county council, and among her many causes she included welfare issues, nursery schools, Cambridgeshire village colleges, and swimming pools. She chaired the county education committee from 1945 to 1957. From 1920 to 1950 she was a JP, retiring on reaching the age limit. In 1928 she said that if she got into parliament she would make penal reform her speciality. She stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for parliament twice: she came bottom of the poll at Chelmsford in 1922 in a three-cornered contest, and was soundly defeated by R. A. Butler in a straight fight at Saffron Walden in 1935. Her intense commitment to an ethic of localized community service could not readily be combined with a career in national Labour politics, for Labour was not electorally powerful in her part of England. However, with her determined chin and formidable intellect, she tenaciously championed the local labour movement. She did her best to strengthen it by holding for many years a summer school at Newnham for working women, and by lecturing widely on social history and local government for the Workers' Educational Association, whose meetings she also attended as a student; for a time she chaired the association's eastern district.

Harris Rackham died in 1944, but Clara's old age was decidedly active. Sociable, intellectually alert, with a good sense of humour and physically fit, she got on well with young people, and enjoyed taking in students as lodgers during the Second World War. Her nieces were deeply influenced by ‘Aunt Dorothea’, and vividly recalled how beautifully she read aloud to them when young, and how interested she became in their choice of career. She was disappointed that so few women took up the opportunities her feminist generation had created. She keenly supported humanism in Cambridge, and as a member of the inter-war League of Nations Union she gravitated naturally into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; by 1961, at the age of eighty-five, she was participating in her fourth Ban the Bomb march, though she supported the Gaitskellite Campaign for Democratic Socialism. She hated being ill, but responded rationally to her deafness in later life by resigning from her many committees. She cycled about to read aloud to blind people, or (as she put it) to her ‘old ladies’, when very much an old lady herself, and was an enthusiastic swimmer in the Cam almost to the end. She died at home at Langdon House, 1 Scotland Road, Cambridge, on 11 March 1966.

Clara Rackham's career demonstrates how readily nonconformist energies could transfer to secularized humanitarian causes, effecting an easy transition from Liberal to Labour. Yet it also illustrates the limits to what consistent, courageous, and intelligent Labour Party energy and commitment over many years could achieve in rural parts. For the transition to Labour weakened anti-Conservative forces in those parts of England where the two progressive parties were forced into mutual competition, and where Labour lacked the breadth of local appeal that the Liberals had earlier enjoyed. Rackham's career also illustrates, however, the broad scope that local government offered to a feminist whose democratic instincts and methods had been nourished within the non-militant suffragist tradition.



J. Bellamy and E. Price, ‘Rackham, Clara Dorothea’, DLB, vol. 9 · private information (1975, 1976) [Mary Tabor, Lucy Tabor] [Mary Tabor; Lucy Tabor] · priv. coll., Rackham family papers · M. Stocks, My commonplace book (1970) · The Queen (17 April 1909) · Cambridge News (12 March 1966) · The Times (16 March 1966) · b. cert.


bust, Guildhall, Cambridge

Wealth at death  

£9815: probate, 19 April 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Clara Dorothea Rackham (1875–1966): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/48589