Rathbone, Eleanor Florence
At a time when the United Kingdom was in economic depression and the women’s movement in decline, the independent member of Parliament (MP) Eleanor Rathbone was one of a handful of interwar “new” feminists who sought innovative ways of addressing the particular economic needs of women and enhancing their self-determination. Her emphasis on protective measures favoring women as mothers brought her into conflict with egalitarian feminists who opposed all form of sexual discrimination, particularly legislation that defined women’s sphere of activity as being within the home. Having started out as a social investigator in Liverpool’s docklands, Rathbone began suggesting alternatives to the workhouse system twenty years or more before a Labour government introduced measures under the welfare state. A recognized expert in economic affairs and the family, she pioneered the concept of family allowances, arguing that women should be able, economically, to stay at home with their children. She also supported greater availability of methods of birth control and from the late 1920s committed herself to social reform in India and the campaign against child marriage.
One of ten children from two marriages, Rathbone was born into a family of Liverpool Quaker merchants with a long tradition of reform and philanthropy through several generations. Her father, the Liberal MP and social reformer William Rathbone, instilled in her from an early age a strong sense of social responsibility. A wealthy and influential figure in Liverpool, he had pioneered reform of nursing care in its workhouses in close collaboration with Florence Nightingale and Agnes Weston and was a supporter of women’s suffrage.
Growing up in homes in Liverpool and London, Rathbone was mainly taught by governesses. After briefly attending Kensington High School, she resisted attempts by her domineering mother to advance her in society and propel her toward a good marriage and persuaded her parents to allow her to go to university. In 1893 she entered Somerville College, Oxford, to study classics (1893–1896), during her studies demonstrating a fine intellect that led fellow students to nickname her “the Philosopher.”
Upon her return to Liverpool, her father provided Rathbone with the moral example and the financial security to take up social reform. Although he had eight sons, they all succeeded in disappointing William; it was Eleanor in whom he invested his philanthropic and political ambitions. She quickly followed her father’s example, in 1897 taking up voluntary work for the Liverpool Central Relief Society (and remaining a member for fifteen years). Through the society and as secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Industrial Council, she earned respect locally for her specialist knowledge of municipal services and inner-city social problems.
In 1900 Rathbone temporarily gave up her social work to spend eighteen months nursing her sick father. After his death in 1902, she spent two years preparing William Rathbone: A Memoir (1905), during which time she joined the Victoria Women’s Settlement run by Elizabeth Macadam, where she became lifelong friends with the feminist preacher Maude Royden. In 1903 Rathbone conducted an inquiry into the cavalier treatment of casual laborers at the Liverpool docks and the economic plight of their families, and in 1909, she was the first woman elected to Liverpool City Council, serving it for twenty-five years, until 1934. In the years leading up to World War I, she continued investigating local social and economic conditions, including housing. Her study of unemployment among Liverpool dockers was published in 1909 as How the Casual Labourer Lives, and in 1913 she brought out her Report on the Liverpool Women’s Industrial Council Survey of Widows under the Poor Law. Even during her later career in Parliament, Rathbone would retain close links with Liverpool, assisting in the establishment of the School of Social Service at Liverpool University, where she occasionally lectured on economics.
For many years, Rathbone had also been a constitutional suffragist. In 1898 she was appointed secretary of the Liverpool branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and in 1900 she became a member of the executive committee of its umbrella organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). But in 1912 she opposed NUWSS leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s decision to ally the party with the Independent Labour Party and establish an Election Fighting Fund in support of Labour candidates sympathetic to women’s suffrage. Rathbone resigned but rejoined on the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
In 1913 Rathbone demonstrated considerable foresight in establishing the first Women’s Citizen’s Association in Liverpool, a move made in anticipation of women soon winning the vote. She envisaged the association as arousing the political interests of women and preparing them for civic responsibility; in particular, she hoped to enlighten working-class and other women from the younger generation who had not been involved in the suffrage campaign (which was put on hold as soon as war broke out).
During World War I, Rathbone initiated an important welfare scheme in Liverpool, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association. The first tentative experiment in her later campaign for family allowances, it distributed service separation allowances, quantified according to the size of the family and paid to the wives of men at the front. The work also heightened Rathbone’s awareness of the plight of families living on the poverty line. In the autumn of 1917, Rathbone set up the Family Endowment Committee, an informal group including Royden, Mary Stocks, and Kate Courtney, to work out a scheme for family endowment (as family allowances were then described). The results of their planning appeared in pamphlet form as “Equal Pay and the Family: A Proposal for the National Endowment of Motherhood.”
Rathbone’s position on family allowances would open up the gathering debate between equal rights feminists and those like herself who supported some form of state remuneration to mothers for the valuable role they played. “Equal Pay and the Family” was written in the belief that the majority of working women accepted the inevitability of receiving less pay than men and that family allowances would give women greater economic independence. Rathbone considered that the equal rights feminists were misguided in their continuing demand for unachievable levels of wage equality and that welfare benefits like those she advocated would ease the pressure on married men to demand higher wages in order to support their families. Convinced of the benefits of small and regular payments made directly to wives and mothers rather than into their husbands’ pay packets, which would put greater spending power in the hands of women, Rathbone believed that her plan would lead to a diminution in male wage demands and with it greater wage parity for both men and women in the workplace.
Rathbone’s ultimate goal, and one that she single-mindedly pursued for thirty years, was that family allowances would not only enhance women’s individual economic status but also improve the nutrition and health of their families. Soon, however, she came up against the vehement opposition of NUWSS leader and equal rights advocate Fawcett, when Rathbone started arguing her case in earnest after the war ended in 1918. Fawcett’s opposition was born of her Victorian belief that welfare measures such as these took away parents’ responsibility for their own children, and other feminists would object to Rathbone’s proposals on family allowances as being antifeminist, designed to keep women in the home and uphold traditional patriarchal structures. Liberal economists saw potential dangers in such welfare provisions eroding the incentive to work by creating a catch-22, whereby the lower-paid would be better off if they did not work and lived on government benefits. Trade unionists also voiced their opposition, worrying that the basic wage would drop as a result.
In 1919, when Fawcett retired, Rathbone took over the presidency of the NUWSS, now reconstituted as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), and dedicated to the ongoing fight to achieve full suffrage for all adults over twenty-one. In 1922 she ran unsuccessfully for the Toxteth seat in Liverpool, eventually securing election to Parliament in 1929 as the (only) independent member of Parliament for the Combined English Universities and remaining in office until her death in 1946. Rathbone continued to pioneer welfare legislation, reiterating her theories in her highly influential 1924 work, The Disinherited Family, which she backed up with sound social research and statistics.
In 1925 Rathbone’s annual presidential address to NUSEC provoked considerable debate between equal rights feminists and the “new feminists” such as herself, who were supporters of family allowances as a precondition to the equalization of pay. In 1926 NUSEC scored its first success when legislation was passed on widows’ pensions, but splits in the union developed in 1927 over the introduction of policies on birth control and family allowances. When NUSEC officially endorsed Rathbone’s welfare proposals in recognition of motherhood as a service to society, eleven members of the executive council left to join other single-issue organizations and pressure groups such as the Six Point Group and Open Door Council, both of which were opposed to protective legislation, and the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, which campaigned against the white slave trade and for the protection of children. With others branching off into activism for the Labour Party and the trade union movement, the British women’s movement in the 1920s and 1930s became increasingly polarized between socialist and middle-class old-school reformers.
In 1927 Rathbone’s attention turned to reform in India, after she read with horror the exposés of child marriage practices there by U.S. journalist Katherine Mayo in her controversial—many said muckraking—book Mother India. Such was Rathbone’s concern for the physical well-being of sexually immature girls forced into early motherhood and suffering inadequate health care in pregnancy and childbirth, that through NUSEC she circulated a questionnaire on the subject to women’s groups in India. She later confirmed that this issue prompted her to once again stand for Parliament. She called a conference in London on Indian Social Evils that September, but Indian activists such as Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (who, living in London at the time, was able to attend) accused her of being intrusive in Indian affairs from a distance of 15,000 miles and thought she should leave this responsibility to Indian campaigners. This and other charges of patronizing, imperialist interference would dog Rathbone’s well-intentioned preoccupation with Indian affairs. She continued to argue in Parliament and through the India Office for the age at marriage in India to be raised to fourteen, contributing to the passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Act (popularly known as the Sarda Act of 1929). In 1929 Rathbone raised the issue of women’s suffrage in India and was again criticized for her unwanted patronage, with Indian campaigners once more understandably resentful of her desire to dominate their own political campaigns. After visiting India in 1932 to investigate the effectiveness of the Sarda Act in preventing child marriage, Rathbone also met with Indian women activists in major cities in order to promote women’s suffrage there. In 1933 she founded the British Committee for Indian Women’s Franchise to lobby for an improvement in the ratio of male to female voters from the government-recommended 1:20 to 1:5.
Rathbone’s 1934 book, Child Marriage, the Indian Minotaur: An Object Lesson from the Past to the Future, attempted a more balanced account than Mayo’s hysterical condemnation of Hindu traditions by also describing similar cases of child marriage among Muslims and blaming the British colonial authorities for failing to confront the issue for so long. She suggested the foundation of an All-India Society for the Abolition of Child Marriage, appointed by that year’s All-India Women’s Conference. As an advocate of constitutional government in India (but not independence), Rathbone served on several committees during 1927–1935 that contributed to the passing of the Government of India Act of 1935. But by this time, other colonial issues were also preoccupying her: female genital mutilation in Africa caused her grave concern, and in 1929 she joined the Committee for the Protection of Coloured Women in the Colonies, which set out to combat the practice. During the 1930s she would speak out also on the white slave trade in Africa and forced marriage in Arab communities in Palestine, as well as advocating better education and vocational training facilities for women in Britain’s African colonies.
Throughout the 1930s, Rathbone spread her sympathies and her activism widely: as an antifascist she denounced Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), publishing The Tragedy of Abyssinia: What Britain Feels and Thinks and Wants (1936). She supported the Republicans in Spain and called for intervention during the Spanish Civil War, visiting the country with Royden in 1936, founding the Basque Children’s Committee, and acting as chair of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. She naturally opposed appeasement with Adolf Hitler and, as a member of the executive committee of the League of Nations Union, advocated collective security and a cultural and economic boycott of Germany, in 1937 arguing her case in War Can Be Averted: The Achievability of Collective Security. That same year, she toured eastern Europe, drawing attention to the dangers of German incursions and, despite the widespread mistrust of communism, calling for a military alliance with the Soviet Union.
After World War II broke out in 1939, Rathbone came to the defense of noncitizens (mainly German Jewish refugees) in Britain interned on the Isle of Man; throughout 1939–1945, she worked tirelessly for refugees as a founder of the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees and the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror. When disgruntled rumblings were heard in Britain against the numbers of Jewish refugees entering the country, she challenged anti-Semitism in her 1944 book, Falsehoods and Facts about the Jews. After the war, she protested British controls over Jewish immigration to Palestine and became a passionate supporter of the Zionist cause.
Having become involved in the postwar refugee problem, Rathbone continued to draw attention to the crisis of Europe’s displaced and starving peoples, especially in Germany and Poland, through her work for Save Europe Now and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. She lobbied hard for the British in Palestine to increase the quotas of Jewish refugees allowed to immigrate. At the end of the war, she accurately predicted further refugee problems with the creation of the Soviet bloc. But her work was cut short when she died suddenly of a heart attack.
In 1940 Rathbone had published The Case for Family Allowances. It had a direct influence on Ernest Beveridge’s 1942 report on welfare legislation, which would be the cornerstone of the welfare state finally inaugurated by a Labour government in 1946. She lived just long enough to witness the passage of the 1945 Family Allowances Act, when she was precipitated into a successful, last-minute protest when the wording of the legislation proposed paying the money to fathers.
From charity work through the pursuit of the many and wide-ranging causes she embraced, Rathbone epitomized the best in welfare feminism during the interwar years, whatever the merits or demerits of her principles, based as they were on a traditional view of motherhood. Oblivious to her considerable wealth, she lived and dressed modestly; although forceful, if not domineering, in her public life, she was reticent on sexual matters and her own private life, which she spent for more than forty years in the companionship of Elizabeth Macadam at her house in London (until they were bombed out in 1940 during the Blitz). In her career in Parliament, she remained fiercely independent of party affiliations; in her perseverance, compassion, and overwhelming Christian sense of social duty, she was one of the last to be cast in the mold of the Victorian tradition of reform.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.