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date: 30 September 2023

Rathbone, Eleanor Florencefree


Rathbone, Eleanor Florencefree

  • Susan Pedersen

Eleanor Florence Rathbone (1872–1946)

by Sir James Gunn, 1933

Rathbone, Eleanor Florence (1872–1946), social reformer, was born on 12 May 1872 at 14 Princes Gardens, London, the tenth of eleven children of William Rathbone (1819–1902), the last six of whom were born to his second wife, Emily Acheson Lyle (1832–1918).

Family and education

William Rathbone, merchant and philanthropist, was a Liberal member of parliament from 1868 until 1895, and Eleanor's childhood years were divided between London and Greenbank, the family home in Liverpool, where successive generations of Rathbones had played a prominent role in civic life. Important Liberal politicians, reformers, and intellectuals were regular visitors in the Rathbone home, and Eleanor grew up with the understanding that public service was, in a sense, a dynastic obligation. Yet her childhood was also rather lonely. The eight Rathbone sons were sent away to boarding-schools, and since her half-sister and sister were considerably her elders, Eleanor found herself often alone. She grew into an introspective and serious girl, much attached to her loving but moralistic father and anxious for parental approbation.

Except for a year at Kensington Girls' School (1889–90), Eleanor's education was conducted at home. Years later she remarked that there were worse ways of educating girls than to let them roam freely through their fathers' libraries; certainly she preferred such solitary exploration to the social obligations of her first London season. In 1892 she began studying Greek with Janet Case, a recent student at Girton College, Cambridge, and—encouraged by Case and by Oliver Lodge, professor of physics at Liverpool University and a close family friend—broached to her parents the subject of attending Cambridge. Something of a family crisis ensued, for Emily Rathbone had other ambitions for her intelligent and attractive daughter, but with her father's support Eleanor was allowed to go to Somerville Hall, Oxford, in 1893, which was then only a hall of residence and had a less rigorously academic reputation than Girton. Yet Somerville declared itself a college one year later and provided her with an excellent education. The only Somerville student in her year to attempt Greats, she studied philosophy with David Ritchie, Charles Cannan, and Edward Caird, and Roman history with Henry Pelham. A mediocre classicist and technically poorly trained, she nevertheless impressed her tutors with her powerful mind. They, in their turn, gave her the same grounding in idealist thought that influenced Toynbee, Beveridge, and other prominent social reformers.

Somerville also provided Eleanor with a community of like-minded friends and the intellectual freedom to work out her own views. Years later her fellow students recalled her intellectual seriousness, her addiction to smoking, her utter hopelessness at games—and also her feminism. Surrounded from childhood by strong-minded women and influenced by Quaker and Unitarian principles, Eleanor arrived at Somerville a self-identified feminist. With Margery Fry, Hilda Oakeley, and a few other young women, she participated in a discussion group, the Associated Prigs, which canvassed intellectual and social questions. Her studies, her interests, and her college friendships all confirmed her sense of election and obligation; when, after her final examinations, she was awarded second class honours, she felt she had let her college and her sex down. She left Somerville in 1896, uncertain how to use her philosophical training or express her commitment to feminism.

Eleanor returned to Liverpool rather than London, for her father had retired from parliament in 1895. She took over the secretaryship of the Liverpool Women's Suffrage Society and of the local branch of the Women's Industrial Council, but her return to the family home was not entirely easy. Her attempts to study were constantly interrupted by domestic plans; efforts to pick up journalistic work came to naught. Along with other socially concerned young women, she volunteered as a home visitor for the Liverpool Central Relief Society, taking a district and devising strategies to lift destitute families out of poverty. Although this work was painstaking and often frustrating, it gave her a sense of purpose and concentrated her mind; in reports summarizing efforts in her district she sought to understand not simply the personal failings that led to distress, but equally the wider causes of poverty. Her father, disappointed in his sons, encouraged these activities; as his health began to fail he came to rely on Eleanor to sustain his own philanthropic efforts. Encouraged by Charles Booth, father and daughter began a new investigation into Liverpool's system of dock labour. But early in 1902, with that work in embryo, William Rathbone died.

Eleanor, now thirty, found his death devastating. From girlhood her father had been her confidant and guide. Like so many eminent Victorians, she worked through her grief with her pen, writing an admiring but restrained account of her father's life (William Rathbone: a Memoir, 1905). Yet if her father's death was a great sorrow, it was also a liberation. Believing as he did in women's independence, William Rathbone had settled money on Eleanor before his death; in his will she received another substantial portion. Now a woman of some means, she had few domestic obligations. Her unmarried half-sister, Elsie, had always managed the Greenbank home; her mother, long since reconciled to Eleanor's unmarried state, was proud of her daughter's achievements. Moreover, as her father's last collaborator and his biographer, Eleanor established herself as his heir. She, rather than any of his many sons, continued the Rathbone philanthropic tradition.

Liverpool politics: social work and women's suffrage

Over the next two decades, a period marked by the South African War and the death of her father on the one hand and the First World War and the death of her mother on the other, Eleanor Rathbone became the most prominent woman in Liverpool's public life. There was a dynastic element to her achievement, surely, for the name of Rathbone was one to be reckoned with in Liverpool politics. Yet if she drew on that tradition, she also in some ways broke with it: for example, to the distress of her male relations on the city council, she identified herself politically as an independent; both her vehement support for women's rights and her growing scepticism about the rationality of the market distanced her from her family's historic Liberalism. Her politics were thus shaped as much by her feminism as by her family inheritance; they were also increasingly linked to her own original economic thought. Rathbone's activities in these years are hard to disentangle, for her roles as a social reformer, social thinker, feminist, and practical politician fed off one another, together providing the foundation for her commanding role as the architect of a ‘new feminism’ after 1918.

Initially, social work took centre stage. In 1903 Rathbone began working with the Victoria Women's Settlement, which had opened in 1898 and was now entering a moment of expansion. In 1902 the settlement had appointed a dynamic new warden, Elizabeth Macadam (1871–1948), a Scottish social worker who had trained at London's Women's University Settlement. Rathbone and Macadam probably met about the time of William's death, and the two became close friends and collaborators. Forthright where Eleanor was reserved, practical where Eleanor was abstracted, Macadam answered Rathbone's only half acknowledged need for friendship and a cause: over the next seventeen years the two used the settlement to anchor a growing local women's movement. They put the settlement on a solid financial footing, recruited some dozens of supporters and co-workers, established a training programme for social workers (a programme that was in 1910 brought under the umbrella of Liverpool University, which then appointed Macadam as a lecturer), and built up an array of social services for local women and children. Great believers in co-ordination between voluntary and public services, the two helped in 1909 to found the Liverpool Council of Voluntary Aid, an umbrella organization which gradually absorbed the work of many older philanthropic societies.

As the settlement's honorary secretary until 1915, Eleanor Rathbone took part in all aspects of this expansion. She paid special attention, however, to social investigation, scrutinizing successive facets of Liverpool's economy and social life with a critical and feminist eye. Her most ambitious study focused entirely on men: her Report of an Inquiry into the Conditions of Dock Labour at the Liverpool Docks (1904) laid bare the inefficiencies as well as the hardships of the casual labour system and catalysed later efforts at decasualization. Already in that study, however, she noted the devastating impact of erratic wages on dockers' wives; a later survey of household budgets (How the Casual Labourer Lives, 1909) further dramatized their predicament. Her earlier studies of women's employment opportunities in Liverpool, undertaken for the Liverpool Women's Industrial Council in the 1890s, had shown that married working-class women had little chance to earn: demand for their labour was low, and most were fully occupied with their children. But must these women be condemned to poverty and dependence? With Liverpool's working mothers as her point of reference, Rathbone began to think more systematically about the problem of the lack of ‘fit’ between a labour market and wage system geared to compensate individual (and usually male) effort and the needs of women and children. In 1912, in essays published in the feminist press, she raised the possibility of direct state provision for the cost of raising children, and in her political interventions she became bolder as well. Having marshalled the support of the seamen's union and the great shipping lines, she helped to work out an arrangement in 1912 whereby seamen could have a portion of their wages paid directly to their wives; in 1914, after subjecting Liverpool's poor-law unions to a blistering attack (The Condition of Widows under the Poor Law in Liverpool, 1913), she advocated state pensions for widows raising young children on their own.

Behind Rathbone's new activism lay more than intellectual conviction: feminist political successes also fuelled her optimism. From the 1890s Liverpool women had served as poor-law guardians and (later) as school governors; in 1906 they won the right to stand for election to the city council. Almost inevitably, the first woman to exercise that right was Rathbone herself: in 1909, in a campaign run largely from the settlement, she won election as an independent representing Granby ward, a seat she held without interruption (and usually unchallenged) until 1935. On the council she became an energetic advocate for municipal housing and for the corporation's women employees, but she also expressed her suffragist views. In 1911, still the council's lone woman member, she persuaded her colleagues to pass a resolution in favour of a women's suffrage bill then before parliament. As both a practical politician and an outspoken feminist, Rathbone's position was not always easy: in 1910 she faced criticism from Archibald Salvidge and other Conservative opponents for endorsing a socialist parliamentary candidate who supported women's suffrage; on the other hand, after 1906 she found her constitutionalist views challenged by a local militant movement loyal to the Pankhursts. She remained, however, both staunchly constitutionalist and progressive: under her leadership the Liverpool Women's Suffrage Society repeatedly condemned militancy while also building up grass-roots support in the towns and rural areas of Lancashire and north Wales. By 1912, with the militant movement in decline, she had become the president of a regional federation of some twenty-seven constitutionalist suffrage societies.

With her political acumen and independent base, Rathbone was an important asset for the national suffrage movement. She served uninterruptedly on the executive of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) from 1896, wrote regularly for the Common Cause, its affiliated paper, and took part in numerous deputations. She was also involved in formulating political strategy, reaching out to progressives within the Liberal Party and opposing the policy, crafted in 1912 by Catherine Marshall and supported by Millicent Fawcett, of allying with the Labour Party in order to put pressure on the Liberals. Convinced that this tactic would strengthen the Conservative Party and ultimately harm the women's cause, Rathbone organized an internal opposition to it, only to have her actions denounced as disloyal. Hurt and shocked, she resigned from the NUWSS executive early in 1914, but that break, while painful, proved temporary. Although horrified by the outbreak of war, she had no doubts of Germany's guilt or of British women's duty to support their country. When the pacifist wing of the executive resigned en masse over the national union's relatively pro-war stance, Rathbone regained her position. From 1915 she was the dominant figure on the national union's executive and, effectively, Fawcett's successor-designate. She managed much of the negotiation over the suffrage issue when it re-emerged in 1916 and—in spite of many feminists' reservations—arranged for a successful amendment to the bill which extended the local franchise to the wives of male local government electors—a provision that increased the women's local government electorate fourfold.

The war also multiplied Rathbone's Liverpool involvements. At its outbreak Liverpool's mayor (and Eleanor's cousin), Herbert R. Rathbone, asked her and Macadam to organize assistance to soldiers' and sailors' wives. This proved to be a complex task, for the Liberal government had promised to pay ‘separation allowances’ to the families of volunteers, but had no machinery to cope with the half-million immediate claims. Philanthropic organizations were thus deputed to process applications and advance payment. In Liverpool, Rathbone pressed her settlement house allies into service, setting up several dozen local offices staffed by hundreds of voluntary workers. In time the war government transferred these functions to a new Ministry of Pensions, but Rathbone's Liverpool organization remained in operation, supplementing state payments, visiting wives and families, and becoming a model for family-based social work. At the end of the war she helped to create the Liverpool Personal Service Society to carry on such work and recruited Dorothy Keeling, a successful Bradford social worker, to run it.

Rathbone's wartime work convinced her of the need for activist women to become involved in state administration itself; more importantly, it suggested a model for addressing the problem of women's dependence that had troubled her for so long. Separation allowances, although far from generous, were proportional to the size of the family and were paid directly into the woman's hands—and Liverpool's poor wives and mothers, Rathbone discovered, usually had less trouble managing on such payments than on their husbands' pay. Already by 1916, then, Rathbone had begun to wonder whether separation allowances might not provide a model for a more comprehensive peacetime policy. In articles in the Economic Journal and The Times she laid out the intellectual case, and early in 1918, with six other collaborators (H. N. Brailsford, Kathleen Courtney, Mary Stocks, Maude Royden, Emile Burns, and Elinor Burns), published a practical proposal (Equal Pay and the Family). One benefit of family endowment, she argued, was that it would make equal pay between men and women possible: with direct state support of children, the case for the (already fictive and inefficient) male family wage would disappear. This group, now renamed the Family Endowment Committee, began presenting their case to public bodies, government planning committees, and the press, and in the statist and reconstruction-obsessed years at the end of the war they received a hearing.

Home life: Elizabeth Macadam

The war years consolidated Rathbone's Liverpool position and enhanced her national reputation, but they also posed a question about her future work. Although profoundly linked to Liverpool, by the end of the war she was travelling almost weekly to London; how, in the future, should she balance these demands? Personal crises sharpened this dilemma. Early in 1918 her mother, Emily, died, and the family home of Greenbank passed, as William had arranged, to her sister, Evie, and brother-in-law, Hugh Reynolds Rathbone, now effectively head of the family in Liverpool. Eleanor planned to share a house with Elsie, her elder half-sister, to whom she was very close, and hoped that Elizabeth Macadam would join them. At the end of the war, however, Macadam was offered the secretaryship of the new Joint Universities Council on Social Studies, whose headquarters were in London. Having just lost her mother, Eleanor thus faced the prospect of losing Elizabeth as well. This crisis made her acknowledge how important Elizabeth's love and support were for her; while she urged Elizabeth to pursue the career that would make her most happy, she promised, in essence, to follow her. In 1919 the two friends bought a house together in Romney Street, just off Smith Square and within an easy walk of parliament. Rathbone's Liverpool commitments remained substantial: she stayed on the city council, continued to lecture for the Liverpool School of Social Service, founded (and became president of) a new cross-party Liverpool Women's Citizens' Association, and made an unsuccessful bid for a parliamentary seat in the election of 1922. She kept a comfortable house in Liverpool—initially with Elsie and after her death alone—but with Elizabeth in London, Romney Street became her primary home. Cushioned by the fortune Elsie left to Eleanor on her death, Eleanor and Elizabeth lived comfortably together for the rest of Eleanor's life.

The nature of that relationship is difficult to recapture, especially since both women were concerned to protect their privacy and arranged that their mutual correspondence be burnt after their deaths. It is not likely to have been actively sexual, for Rathbone in particular was somewhat prudish, hostile to Freudianism and other theories elevating the importance of instinctual life, and prone to define sexual feeling as a troublesome male failing. Yet, for her, Macadam was much more than a friend and companion. Eleanor once told Elizabeth that she had allowed no one else inside 'the ring-fence of my personality' (Stocks, 181); only with Elizabeth did she feel fully herself, only with Elizabeth could she be completely unconstrained. Rathbone took Macadam's advice on all aspects of her work, but she also relied on her practical and social skills, counting on Macadam to run their joint household and manage their schedules. Gradually, then, and especially after Rathbone's election to parliament in 1929, Macadam's independent career gave way to her role as Eleanor's trusted deputy, emotional support, and, in a sense, ‘political wife’. This shift in the relationship caused some tension, for Macadam was a strong-minded but sensitive woman, proud of her own accomplishments and quick to resent those who saw her only as Eleanor's companion. Yet Rathbone, for her part, never took Macadam for granted; although the more prominent, she was also the more dependent. In 1919 Eleanor had written to Elizabeth that the prospect of a shared life dedicated to the work of social reform would bring her 'a happiness too great to seem possible' (letter, Rathbone papers); all the evidence is that it did so.

Feminist reforms and election as MP

After her death Eleanor Rathbone came to be remembered primarily for her successful campaign in support of family allowances, and indeed that cause figured prominently throughout her life. Yet such a characterization overlooks her central role in pre-war Liverpool politics; nor does it do justice either to the lasting importance of her economic thought or to the range of national causes on which she made a mark. After 1919 Rathbone took up five main political issues, those of the integration of women into political life, the development of state benefits for the family, the protection of women in Britain's colonial empire, the defence of democratic political ideals in the face of the rise of fascism, and the rescue and reception of refugees from Francoist Spain and Nazi Germany. She became the dominant figure in the first two arenas, and played a significant, if less well-known, role in the last three. And in all five areas she exhibited a combination of progressive idealism and pragmatic political acumen that mark her out as one of the most accomplished public campaigners of the years between the wars.

Perhaps inevitably, feminism dominated Rathbone's thoughts after 1918. Millicent Fawcett's determination to step down as the leader of the constitutionalist suffrage federation, combined with the failure of all the women candidates (save Constance Markievicz, who did not take her seat) at the 'khaki' election, forced politically active women to think concretely about their aims and strategies. Rathbone knew what she wanted: as a political independent, she did not wish to see women simply absorbed into the established political parties; she was convinced that cross-party feminist activism remained essential to women's advancement. In 1919 she was elected to succeed Fawcett as president of the now renamed National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC).

During the years of Rathbone's presidency the national union pursued several feminist reforms, among them an equalization of the franchise, equal guardianship of children, divorce-law reform, and widows' pensions. Parliamentary and political activity remained the focus, and with the aid of her close friend Eva Hubback, who served as parliamentary secretary, Rathbone turned the union into a very effective lobbying organization, skilled in drafting legislation, adept at finding parliamentary allies, and capable of drumming up waves of resolutions from branches and allied women's groups across the country. These efforts met with some real success: by 1929, when Rathbone stepped down as president, she could point to a number of measures—among them the introduction of widows' pensions in 1925 and the equal franchise legislation of 1928—that had improved the lives of many millions of women.

Yet for all NUSEC's legislative success, the twenties proved difficult years for feminism. Without the vote to campaign for, feminist organizations proved hard to sustain: younger women professed themselves uninterested, while veteran campaigners often devoted themselves to single-issue causes. Rathbone responded to this problem creatively but controversially, insisting that feminists not only demand all those rights and privileges hitherto monopolized by men (a project she tended to identify as 'the old feminism'), but also begin to adapt social institutions to reflect women's own values and work. 'At last we can stop looking at all our problems through men's eyes and discussing them in men's phraseology,' she told a divided NUSEC conference in 1925. 'We can demand what we want for women, not because it is what men have got, but because it is what women need to fulfil the potentialities of their own natures and to adjust themselves to the circumstances of their own lives' (Woman's Leader, 13 March 1925, 52). Such was Rathbone's standing that she brought her organization with her: NUSEC added family allowances to its programme in 1925 and, even more controversially, moderated its uniformly hostile stand on protective legislation in 1927. Yet these victories came at a real cost, for the ‘new feminist’ agenda alienated many old supporters; after the vote on protective legislation in 1927, fully half the executive committee resigned. Already much diminished, NUSEC could not afford these losses; in the thirties, after setting up the townswomen's guilds as a successful offshoot, it subsided into a still smaller National Council for Equal Citizenship, restricting its activity to specific lobbying efforts.

If feminist organizations declined, however, some feminist politicians flourished, among them Rathbone. In 1929, at the urging of several friends at Liverpool and Manchester universities, she agreed to stand as an independent for the parliamentary seat of Combined English Universities. To her surprise, she won the seat easily—and had little trouble holding it through three subsequent elections until her death. As MP for the Combined Universities, a political independent, and a woman, she might be thought entirely marginal to the Commons, but she made the first two liabilities work in her favour, taking advantage of her intellectual standing and non-party status to speak on the basis of conscience alone. Even more important, she made an impressive case for women MPs. True, she gave ‘women's questions’ special attention, and unlike many of her fellow women MPs did not hesitate to identify herself as a feminist. Yet she also followed colonial and foreign policy closely, and some of her very best speeches were on such questions as British policy towards Ethiopia or Home Office regulations on the admission of refugees. Always well prepared, pointed, and capable equally of espousing common sense arguments or of quoting Macaulay and Mill, she struck the Manchester Guardian's parliamentary correspondent as having a 'masculine mind'—but it would be truer to say that she established the principle that the mind has no sex, and that women could speak with as much force and intelligence as men on matters of national importance. Skilled lobbyist as she was, Rathbone also mastered the ways of the house, learning how to extract meetings or concessions from ministers with the threat of a parliamentary question and buttonholing government spokesmen, who, Harold Nicolson recalled, used to dive into doorways to avoid her.

Family allowances

The status and rights of women was thus always one of Rathbone's central concerns in the years after 1919, but that focus often shaded imperceptibly into a second area of activity. By the end of the war she had become convinced that only by disaggregating male wages and paying mothers directly for the work of reproduction could women achieve full citizenship, and she never changed her view. Throughout the twenties she built up the intellectual case for and a political coalition behind the ideal of family endowment. The founding document was her own comprehensive but impassioned study, The disinherited family: a plea for direct provision for the costs of child maintenance through family allowances (1924; rev. edn, 1927). Heralded by William Beveridge, Hugh Dalton, and other prominent economists as one of the most important modern treatises on distributive economics, Rathbone's book began with a cogent statistical proof of the lack of ‘fit’ between wages and family needs, proceeded to make the case for direct endowment of motherhood on moral, economic, humanitarian, and demographic grounds, and concluded with a thorough survey of the family allowance systems introduced on the continent and across the empire.

Widely reviewed, The Disinherited Family won a number of prominent converts, allowing Rathbone to set up a broader Family Endowment Society devoted to propagandizing the cause. From 1924 the society presented the case for family endowment to royal commissions and party committees, interested businessmen, and activist women. There were some victories: in 1925, with Beveridge's support, the royal commission on the coal industry recommended that a system of family allowances be set up to mitigate the effects of wage reductions for miners; in 1926 the Independent Labour Party made a system of state-funded family allowances the cornerstone of their expansionist platform, 'Socialism in our time'. Yet there were few practical experiments. Beveridge set up a family allowances programme at the London School of Economics; a few progressive employers introduced firm-based schemes; a few city councils introduced rent rebates for families with young children. But no major party came out in favour of the policy: even the Labour Party, which looked likely to support it in the run-up to the general election of 1929, in the end bowed to trade-union fears of possible effects upon wage bargaining. And as the slump worsened in the early thirties, family endowment looked likely to be postponed for ever.

Yet Rathbone found a way to adjust even to these dismal circumstances. As she noted, in a period of downturn it was even more crucial to put the welfare of children first, and in 1934 she founded the Children's Minimum Campaign Committee to press for better social services—including free milk and school meals—for children in poverty. That men with large families could sometimes receive more from unemployment insurance and assistance (which included children's allowances) than they could earn as unskilled labourers also crystallized the argument for universal allowances. By the late thirties such planning advocates as the Next Five Years Group and the management research groups had taken a new interest in family endowment; populationist concerns brought such Conservatives as Leo Amery on board. By the spring of 1941 more than 150 MPs joined Rathbone in a petition urging the government to introduce a state scheme; one year later such a resolution passed the Commons. When William Beveridge worked out a comprehensive plan for social security during the Second World War, he made a universal system of children's allowances (for the second child and beyond) one of the assumptions of his plan. In the end the wartime government bowed to the inevitable and introduced a Family Allowances Bill, but only after serious pressure from Rathbone and the women's organizations would it contemplate making the payment directly to the mother. Rathbone, who was suffering from an injured leg, attended the bill's final stages in a wheelchair; characteristically, she was embarrassed and confused when the house rose to cheer her.

Women in the British empire

Her desire to improve the status of mothers always lay at the heart of Rathbone's social policy efforts, and they motivated her ten-year excursion into colonial questions as well. In 1925 she had been appointed assessor, representing the international women's organizations, to the child welfare committee of the League of Nations. The Geneva conferences she attended drew her attention to the oppression of women and children in other parts of the world; increasingly, she saw feminism in an international and imperial frame. In 1927, when the American muckraker Katherine Mayo published Mother India, her tendentious exposé of the sexual subjection of Indian women and children, Rathbone sprang into action. At two NUSEC-sponsored conferences and in an early article she urged British women to take up the domestic subjection of colonized women. For the next eight years in parliamentary questions, articles, speeches, and a short book on the subject (Child Marriage: an Indian Minotaur, 1934) she argued for a robust campaign against child marriage by British authorities and Indian reformers alike.

Yet her foray into Indian questions proved difficult. Rathbone assumed that the British authorities in India could best act to stamp out child marriage: to her surprise, however, neither politically active Indian women nor the government of India shared her views. Progressive Indian women had been profoundly offended by Mayo's openly racist views and insisted that India's social problems should be addressed by Indians alone; the India Office and the government of India, for their part, were reluctant to undertake legislation likely to cause local unrest. After two years of fruitless parliamentary lobbying Rathbone changed tactics. From 1930 until 1935, when the Government of India Act finally passed, she worked indefatigably to increase Indian women's representation, both as electors and as legislators, in the new constitution. Once again her proposals drew criticism from some Indian feminists eager to maintain the principle of strictly equal qualifications for women and men, and her six-week trip to India in 1932 only partially dispelled their suspicions. Yet she pursued her goal with great skill, keeping in close touch with Indian progressives and feminists (even those with whom she disagreed), cultivating successive secretaries of state for India and their under-secretaries (she became close to Lord Lothian in particular), giving evidence to the round-table conference and its subcommittees, setting up a formidable British women's lobby to press her proposals, and arranging for the introduction of a raft of amendments during the bill's final stages. By 1935 many in Britain and India agreed about the need to improve women's political representation, but the form in which this was done—through a special wife's franchise and reserved women's seats—owed much to Rathbone's interventions.

Nor was India Rathbone's only colonial cause. In December 1929, in an act of remarkable political courage, she and the duchess of Atholl rose in the Commons to denounce the practice of clitoridectomy in some African territories and to ask whether some African women's situation did not resemble slavery. With Atholl and Josiah Wedgwood, she founded a small, cross-party committee for the protection of coloured women in the crown colonies, which gradually extracted some information about African women's social conditions from a reluctant Colonial Office. Rathbone also kept a watching brief on women's political rights across the colonies, speaking up to defend women's franchise in Bermuda and Palestine, and to argue for British women's right to retain their nationality on marriage. A visit to Palestine with Macadam in 1934 at the invitation of the Palestine Women's Equal Rights Association aroused an incipient Zionism. Impressed with Jewish settlers' educational and social institutions, and struck by the equal role accorded women, she told the association that, had she her life to live over again, she might choose to return as a Jew in Palestine.

Rathbone's colonial involvements, which dominated her life in the early thirties, were always principally feminist in aim: she wished to improve women's position in all Britain's imperial possessions. Yet her efforts brought about a subtle shift in her thought, for if she began by asserting British women's rights to protect colonized women, she ended by seeking to extend such women's own political rights. This shift strengthened her core democratic principles: to those who claimed that Indian or Arab women were too illiterate or backward to exercise political power Rathbone retorted—following Mill—that through such exercise women would grow in capacity and knowledge. Gradually, then, a fundamentally humanitarian approach gave way to an overtly political stance, positioning her well for the role she played as democratic tribune in the last decade of her life.

Anti-appeasement, rescue of refugees

Rathbone took up that role early. In April 1933 she was already pointing to the danger posed to European democracies by the Nazi seizure of power and arguing against a policy of conciliation. In the following year, in parliament and on the executive of the League of Nations Union, she urged a vigorous defence of Ethiopia in the face of Italian aggression. Frustrated by the union's dilatory procedures and by the widespread public sentiment in favour of peace at almost any price, she tried allying with an assortment of groups—Lloyd George's Council of Action, the National Council for Civil Liberties—which she hoped might take a more robustly anti-fascist line. Usually, however, she worked with a few trusted friends, especially the duchess of Atholl, who shared her disgust at the policy of appeasement. In February 1937 she and Atholl met political leaders and intellectuals in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia to urge them to resist German influence; in Britain as well Rathbone warned that fascist powers would be encouraged and not appeased by concessions. The democratic powers must defend the principles of the league, with force if necessary, she wrote in War can be Averted, published by the Left Book Club in early 1938. Yet, looking at the 'doubtful hesitating set of men' on the front bench (Hansard 5C, 343, 31 Jan 1939, 149), she felt anything but optimistic. Having predicted as early as 1936 that only a 'real National Government' led by Churchill and backed by Labour would effectively stand up to the fascist powers (Rathbone papers, XIV.3.34), in the wake of the Munich crisis she set up a cross-party parliamentary action group which helped to pave the way for Churchill's accession.

But it was the Spanish conflict that most absorbed Rathbone's energies in the late thirties. Although anything but a communist, she saw it in black and white terms: to her mind, a democratic republic was seeking to defend itself from precisely the same forces as had seized control in Italy and Germany. She could not, then, understand why the democratic powers refused to come to the republic's defence. Critical from the outset of the policy of non-intervention, Rathbone publicized information about German and Italian violations of the pact and bombarded the government with parliamentary questions (by the late thirties well over half of her questions were about this conflict). She also took on extensive extra-parliamentary commitments. At the end of 1936 she accepted the vice-chairmanship of a newly formed national joint committee for Spanish relief, which organized the evacuation, care, and eventual repatriation of some 4000 refugee children. With the duchess of Atholl, Ellen Wilkinson, and Dame Rachel Crowdy, she travelled to Spain in the spring of 1937—braving bombardment in Valencia—to review the situation of refugees and political prisoners for herself. Nothing she saw there diminished her enthusiasm for the republican cause, and as its fortunes worsened, she put herself at some political risk to try to get refugees out. By the spring of 1939, unable to mobilize either the Foreign or Home Office and with the republic all but defeated, she simply tried to charter a ship to run the blockade and remove from Valencia republican sympathizers sure to suffer Franco's vengeance.

Rathbone's Spanish adventures turned her into a refugee expert. She harangued and pleaded with a reluctant Home Office for more generous policies on entry and, when she found herself inundated by individual requests for aid, set up a parliamentary committee for refugees to take up such cases. As she saw it, having so singularly failed to defend Europe's vulnerable democracies, Britain was morally required to give shelter once those democracies had fallen. Late in 1938 she tried to secure entry for Czech and German socialists and Jews threatened by Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland; January 1939 found her in Prague, trying to make sure that such refugees were not simply—in compliance with Nazi wishes—shipped back to Germany. This was a strenuous life for a woman who was almost seventy, but she seems to have thrived on it: there is no suggestion before the 1940s that foreign travel, long hours, constant smoking, and sporadic sleep taxed her robust constitution.

With the outbreak of war Rathbone felt a measure of relief as well as horror: the expiation for appeasement was finally at hand. Certainly, she dreaded the loss of life and utterly rejected the idea that it should fall on young men alone. To the contrary, she insisted on women's duty to risk their lives and eagerly backed the campaign, run mostly by her fellow women MPs, to bring women into all (and even the most dangerous) of wartime occupations. Both she and Elizabeth filled out their voluntary service forms, Rathbone professing herself in excellent health, able to drive, and willing to do anything required. Both women refused to leave London during the blitz and simply moved round the corner to Tufton Court when Romney Street was destroyed by bombs in 1940. Rathbone had a busy war, reviving the family endowment campaign, helping to found the Citizens' Advice Bureau, entering into a much reported if ill-advised correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru, and, especially, carrying on with her refugee work.

In June 1940, with an invasion of Britain possible, the Home Office interned some tens of thousands of ‘enemy aliens’; to Rathbone's horror, these included socialist and Jewish refugees from Nazism—who remained, in Home Office eyes, German. Refugees interned in haste were released at leisure, and Rathbone and her allies found themselves locked in combat with Herbert Morrison and his under-secretaries both about policy and about individual cases. Her persistence and expertise made her at the same time respected and (in some cases) disliked by the officials and ministers whom she badgered almost daily. So strained did her relations become with Morrison in particular that Rathbone, fearing that his hostility would jeopardize particular cases, began working through other MPs. Yet within the refugee community itself and among a loyal group of parliamentary and political co-workers she won a reputation for her almost saintly devotion and integrity. As always, much of her work was funded from her own pocket.

As news of Nazi mass murders made its way to Britain, Rathbone's parliamentary committee joined Jewish organizations in trying to frame some response. When Jan Karski reached England late in 1942 bringing word of extermination camps in Poland and the early use of gas, Rathbone was among those he contacted. For the next two years this issue almost blotted out all others. Together with Victor Gollancz, Victor Cazalet, and others, she founded a new organization, the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, to press the government to mount efforts to rescue those threatened with annihilation. A wide range of proposals—from underground work to pressure on neutrals and the satellite states and an actual offer to Hitler to take in all Jews from occupied lands—made their way from her committee to the Foreign and Home offices. Until 1944 at least its efforts met with very little response: officials adopted a dilatory, wait and see attitude and, to Rathbone's fury, tied the question up in leisurely international consultations. Repeatedly warned by officials that publicity might lead to retaliation against those she wished to help, she usually held her tongue; on a few occasions, though, she and her allies forced bitter Commons debates. Although Rathbone accepted that military efforts must come first, she could not understand the government's unwillingness even to contemplate attempts at rescue. As the death toll mounted, a sense of impotence occasionally overwhelmed her. Yet she never succumbed to despair or to talk of revenge: she was one of the few British politicians to denounce forthrightly the deportations of Germans at the end of the war and, together with Victor Gollancz, spearheaded a civilian effort to send foodstuffs to her former enemies in that dreadful post-war winter. She was caught up in this effort when she died suddenly of a stroke at her home, 26 Hampstead Lane, Highgate, Middlesex, on 2 January 1946. She was cremated and her name added to the family monument in the Smithfield Road cemetery, Liverpool.

Reputation and legacy

A wave of tributes from parliamentary allies and humanitarians followed. A memorial lecture series was established at the civic universities and a home for refugee children built in Rathbone's memory in Israel. Over the next thirty years, however, she slipped out of the public mind. The university seat which she represented with such distinction was abolished soon after the war; moreover, given her political independence, no party could claim—and thus publicize—her achievements. Her name was associated with family allowances, but during the post-war economic boom these were allowed to stagnate and found few advocates.

In the 1970s, however, Rathbone's life and, more importantly, her ideas won renewed attention. Economic downturn and the emergence of such lobbies as the Child Poverty Action Group put family allowances back on the political agenda, and with the rise of second-wave feminism the efforts of earlier women activists received another look. Sometimes that effort at recovery generated as much heat as light. The battles of the 1920s between ‘new feminists’ and ‘equalitarians’ were refought in the pages of academic journals in the 1980s, with Rathbone's ideas often caricatured or singled out for particular praise or blame. Gradually, though, scholars came to see British feminism's inter-war quarrels as part of a broader argument over citizenship and social rights played out in most western states in the wake of the First World War, and to appreciate the combination of pragmatism and analytical power Rathbone brought to that debate. Having spent many years among Liverpool's working-class families, she had the wit to recognize that mothers raising children were indeed working and the moral imagination to envisage a world in which such work might carry its own economic reward. She was, then, one of the first thinkers to move beyond an arid argument about whether women should seek equality or ask for the accommodation of difference and to recognize the profoundly gendered—to use twenty-first-century terminology—nature of labour markets, wage systems, and political structures. In her insistence that feminists pursue not only equal opportunities within that gendered system but equally the reconditioning of those structures to eradicate their masculine bias Rathbone anticipated much later feminist thinking and politics. Few have thought so creatively and at the same time so practically about what it would take to bring about a genuinely equal citizenship for women.

But the renewed interest in Rathbone's life and work came from a second direction as well. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as the official records on Indian policy, appeasement, the Spanish Civil War, and allied responses to the holocaust began to open, scholars working in all these areas were surprised to find the figure of an indomitable middle-aged humanitarian constantly crossing their path. In her own day Rathbone's central role in many of the international and reform movements of the thirties and early forties escaped public notice, for she tended to work through sympathetic fellow MPs or cross-party lobbying groups and to use the threat of publicity to force reluctant ministers to hear her out. But those who worked with her closely found her (as Harold Nicolson recalled) to be a subtle tactician and an adept political operator; certainly no other back-bench MP of this period can be credited with such a range of accomplishments. 'No Parliamentary career has been more useful and fruitful,' the Manchester Guardian insisted on her death (Manchester Guardian, 3 Jan 1946, 3), and as scholars bring to light her central role in humanitarian causes ranging from better child nutrition to Spanish relief, from family allowances to the release of interned aliens, this verdict seems justifiable.

Rathbone herself would have been bemused by this posthumous attention. Personally reticent and driven by conscience rather than ambition, she found public attention disconcerting and embarrassing. She could not be persuaded to accept an honour for her work in either the First World War or the Second (although she did accept honorary degrees from Durham, Liverpool, and Oxford) and, when a group of friends insisted on having her portrait painted in 1932, she was quite taken aback. 'I do not believe that I belong to the small class of persons who justify public portraits,' she protested in a letter; fifty years from now, she predicted, that portrait would languish forgotten in some dark corner or cupboard (Beveridge papers, II b, 31, London School of Economics). But here her predictive antennae proved faulty. James Gunn's portrait of Eleanor Rathbone was hung in the National Portrait Gallery, and her ideas and achievements continue to compel our attention. Brilliant, systematic, and pragmatic enough to translate visionary ideas into piecemeal reforms, she stands as both the most significant feminist thinker and the most effective woman politician of the first half of the twentieth century.


  • Rathbone papers, U. Lpool
  • Hansard 5C (1929–46)
  • M. D. Stocks, Eleanor Rathbone: a biography (1949)
  • Common Cause [later Woman's Leader and the Common Cause] (1909–31)
  • S. Pedersen, Women's stake in democracy: Eleanor Rathbone's answer to Virginia Woolf (Austin, Texas, 2000)
  • S. Pedersen, ‘Rathbone and daughter: feminism and the father at the fin-de-siècle’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 1/1 (Jan 1996)
  • S. Pedersen, ‘Eleanor Rathbone, 1872–1946: the Victorian family under the daughter's eye’, After the Victorians, ed. S. Pedersen and P. Mandler (1994)
  • B. Harrison, ‘Constructive crusader: Eleanor Rathbone’, Prudent revolutionaries: portraits of British feminists between the wars (1987)
  • J. Alberti, Eleanor Rathbone (1996)
  • Foreign and Home Office papers, TNA: PRO
  • BLPES, Beveridge MSS
  • archives, Somerville College, Oxford
  • U. Birm., Oliver Lodge MSS
  • U. Warwick Mod. RC, Wilfred Roberts papers, MSS 308
  • Lothian papers, NA Scot.
  • Katherine Mayo papers, Yale U.
  • Nancy Astor papers, U. Reading
  • S. Pedersen, Family, dependence and the origins of the welfare state: Britain and France, 1914–1945 (1993)
  • J. Alberti, Beyond suffrage: feminists in war and peace, 1914–1928 (1989)
  • B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939–1945 (1979)


  • Somerville College, Oxford
  • U. Lpool, corresp. and papers
  • Women's Library, London, papers
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51141
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56786
  • BL OIOC, Indian Office papers
  • BL OIOC, corresp. with John Simon, MS Eur. F 77
  • BLPES, corresp. with William Beveridge
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian
  • TNA: PRO, Foreign and Home Office papers
  • U. Birm., Oliver Lodge papers
  • U. Reading, Astor papers
  • U. Warwick Mod. RC, Wilfred Roberts papers
  • Women's Library, London, corresp. relating to Indian women's affairs
  • Yale U., Katherine Mayo papers


  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • photograph, 1909, U. Lpool, Rathbone Archives; repro. in Pedersen, ‘Eleanor Rathbone’
  • J. Gunn, oils, 1933, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£96,999: probate, 14 June 1946, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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