Rathbone, Eleanor (1872–1946)

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Rathbone, Eleanor (1872–1946)

British feminist, social reformer, and member of Parliament. Born in Liverpool, England, in 1872; died in 1946; daughter of William Rathbone (a social reformer and Liberal MP); cousin of Rosalind Paget (1855–1948); educated at Kensington High School and Somerville College, Oxford; never married; no children.

Born in Liverpool, England, in 1872, Eleanor Rathbone was prominent in the British feminist movement between World War I and World War II. She inherited a family legacy of social reform and political involvement that was passed down to her by three generations of philanthropists and reformers: her great-grandfather William Rathbone (1757–1809), a merchant who played a prominent role in philanthropic enterprise in Liverpool; her grandfather, also named William (1787–1868), a philanthropist and educator who served one year as Liverpool's mayor; and her father, the third William (1819–1902), a philanthropist, social reformer, and Liberal Party MP whose views greatly influenced those of his daughter.

Rathbone's world broadened considerably when she left Liverpool in 1893 to attend Somerville College at Oxford. After completing work there, she considered focusing on philosophy but chose instead to embrace social work, noting that the contemplation of abstract ideas lost its pleasure in a world "with all its wrongs shouting in one's ears." She soon became deeply involved in the Edwardian suffrage campaign, and joined the "non-militant" National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). By 1900, her suffragist work in Lancashire had led her to a seat in the union's executive committee. She remained active in the NUWSS until 1919, when in the wake of women's enfranchisement it was transformed into the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), of which she became president. In 1912, she published ideas on family allowances that she had first elaborated eight years before, and she remained active in local government and social questions in Liverpool, forming the Liverpool Women Citizens' Association in 1913 to educate women in public affairs and later sitting on the Liverpool city council until 1935.

Perhaps the most spirited issue in which she was involved during the 1920s was the heated debate between the "old" and "new" feminists. "New" feminists, for whom Rathbone was a vocal advocate, favored discriminatory welfare reforms designed to gain equality for women in their roles as mothers. They insisted that women had distinctive legislative needs separate from those of men, and promoted family allowances to reward women who had families (and who were, in general, financially dependent entirely on their husbands). This would also, Rathbone thought, lessen what she called the "Turk complex," or the pride engendered in some men by the fact that their families were utterly dependent on them. To further these and other feminist aims, in 1922 she ran as an Independent for a parliamentary seat in East Toxteth; the area was highly conservative, however, and she won only 40% of the vote. In 1929, again as an Independent, she won a seat representing the two-member Combined English Universities, which she would hold for the rest of her life.

Throughout the 1930s, Rathbone pressed the case that women were lumped together with men in the national insurance system only when it suited men; unemployment benefits, of which women claimed less than men, were pooled, while health benefits, of which women claimed more, were not. She also argued for a fairer national insurance policy for married women who held paying jobs. She was not, however, a supporter of legislation enforcing equal pay for women, which she believed would, if passed without concomitant family allowances, be merely a pretext for getting women out of the work force. (That she was correct in this supposition can be seen by the views of some supporters of equal pay, including Oswald Mosley's Union of British Fascists, which hoped that it would return women to their "proper sphere" of the home.) Rathbone's case for family allowances, which she had articulated before 1914, was strengthened by the example of separation allowances during the First World War. The family allowance committee formed in 1917 gained impetus from her 1924 work Disinherited Family, a milestone in social reform that one critic considered "perhaps the most important feminist text" since John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women. The Inheritance (Family Provision) Act was enacted in 1938; two years later, she published The Case for Family Allowances. Rathbone was also a proponent of birth control (although like most feminists she waited to gain

the vote before speaking out on the matter), as she believed the poor could improve their lives if they had fewer children. One of only three women MPs to endorse birth control between the world wars, she contributed financially to the predecessor of the Family Planning Association in the early 1930s, and believed government health clinics should provide birth-control information. (At least some of this advocacy, however, was spurred by fears that birth rates in the working class, which exceeded those of the middle class, eventually would lead to increased power for the working class.)

Rathbone was wealthy, but, as with the rest of her family, her affluence did not necessarily influence her politics. In 1930, for example, she advocated higher taxation of inherited wealth, noting that inheritance itself provided an unfair edge to only a small percentage of the population. Indeed, she seemed somewhat indifferent to her own money; she never traveled first class, and took only working vacations. Rathbone was so focused on her work that there was little time for much else; she had no interest in clothes, frequently forgot to eat, and had a habit of being unable to recall where she had put things. She has been described as squeamish about anything smacking of sex, including naked children, and her sole relaxation was smoking cigarettes. Her companion since the 1920s, Elizabeth Macadam , took care of the household with the assistance of a housekeeper. While she was often warm with her close friends, Rathbone also had scant patience with human foibles, and like a number of great lovers of humanity she had high expectations of those actual humans with whom she had contact, and frequently little tolerance for their failings.

Rathbone gave more attention to foreign policy than did many feminists at the time. In the 1920s, she was a strong proponent of rights for Indian women and an end to the traditional practices (such as suttee and the proscription against the remarriage of widows) that oppressed them, and in the early 1930s she spoke out against female circumcision in the British colonies in Africa. Also in the early 1930s, she became a staunch Zionist after a visit to Palestine. The rise of Hitler and reports of his atrocities worried her deeply, as did the prospect of war, and in 1937 she published War Can Be Averted, in which she argued against a conflict with Germany. When that appeared inevitable, however, Rathbone shifted gears to throw her full support towards the defeat of Hitler and fascism. Consumed with this aim, she commented that she did not want to die without seeing the outcome of the war. Her wish was granted; she died in 1946, a year after hostilities ended with the Allied victory.


Harrison, Brian. Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists between the Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Alberti, Johanna. Eleanor Rathbone. London: Sage, 1996.

Stocks, Mary D. Eleanor Rathbone: "A Biography." Victor Gollancz, 1949.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan

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Rathbone, Eleanor (1872–1946)

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