For all of my life, though she died before I was born, Eleanor Rathbone has been around me.
When I got my first proper job working in Everton for the Liverpool City Housing Department, I would pass the Victoria Settlement on my way to work every day. Still going then, it had been Liverpool’s first women’s and children’s community centre, set up and run at the beginning of the 20th century by a group of enthusiastic feminists, including Eleanor Rathbone.
Then doing my Sociology degree at the University of Liverpool I was based in the Eleanor Rathbone building. She founded the department. The department I’m once again a member of, from September 2018, as I begin my MA and PhD.
Working at Liverpool Housing Trust I once booked Greenbank House, owned by the University by then, for a Board meeting. And when we got there LHT Board member Margaret Simey said to me ‘You know, the last time I was here I was taking tea with Eleanor Rathbone.’ This had been the Rathbone family home from the 18th century until after Eleanor Rathbone’s death.
Margaret of course was a City Councillor representing Granby Ward for many years, as was Eleanor Rathbone from 1909 to 1935, Liverpool’s first female Councillor. And these last few years much of my own time has gone into helping the people in Granby work on the future of their place.
Hardly a day goes by without me running past Greenbank House these days. Writing this blog it keeps turning up. In stories of an earlier Rathbone and William Roscoe and the abolition of slavery. And walks where I show the lovely and now disused house to startled friends who are always deeply moved to know they are standing where the great Eleanor Rathbone lived and grew up.
And of course as a child I was amongst the first generations whose mothers were paid the Family Allowance. Eleanor Rathbone’s final and towering achievement after she had earlier played such a crucial part in getting all those women the vote.
I am privileged to walk where she walked and to have lived in her benign shadow.
I’m not sure we would have got on though. She was a very reserved Victorian, the product of such a different age. Even writing this, all on my own on a computer in the 21st century, I can’t be so familiar as to call her ‘Eleanor’ even in my mind. I think she’d take it as presumptuous over-familiarity. So, full name or the more modern ‘Ms Rathbone’ will have to do.
I’m familiar enough with how she was to suspect this because I’ve recently been reading a very thorough and scholarly biography of her. ‘Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience’ by Susan Pedersen was one of the first books I borrowed from Liverpool Central Library when it reopened. It’s an extremely well researched and written book that ended up only increasing my already high respect for Eleanor Rathbone.
Coming from a prominent and secure Liverpool Liberal family she was never poor. But from very early in her life we see her minding that other people were and doing things about it. Her focus was always and instinctively the position of women as the poorly or unpaid members of the economy. Forever subservient to the positions and interests of men. Principally bringing up the next generation of citizens, dependent on voluntary handouts for housekeeping from husbands who may have cared deeply, but were under no duress to necessarily do so.
After early social work and political experiences in Liverpool, by World War One she is in London sorting out how the state will support women whose husbands are at the Front, or dead. And I was surprised to find out what a tireless but patient negotiator she was.
During all these early years she’s been a prominent feminist promoting women’s suffrage. But actually the feminist camp divided roughly in two. There were the ‘equalitarians’ who wanted the vote so that a woman might do anything that a man could do, and were prepared to break the law to get it. Then there were the ‘social reformers’ who wanted women having the vote to improve the social and economic positions of all women in society, but would countenance no law-breaking whatsoever. Eleanor Rathbone was a social reformer and though influenced by the equalitarians thought their use of arson to make their point at times was indefensible. Whilst equalitarians, such as the Pankhursts, found the likes of Eleanor Rathbone too patient, too gradualist. I think that’s a fair summary.
But there was usually more uniting the suffragettes than dividing them and in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act was finally passed, Eleanor Rathbone entering Parliament a year later.
And again I was surprised to read what a constitutionalist she was, what a devoted Parliamentarian, what a supreme operator.
But she was never a member of a political party. Though coming from a Liberal family she always stood in elections as an Independent. So was therefore never subject to party discipline or in-fighting and would work with sympathetic souls wherever she could find them. And work she did, too much and too many achievements to set out in a short blog post. So read the book. If you’re interested in feminism, politics, economics or Liverpool then you owe it to yourself. It’s superbly done and when it finished I was sorry.
A few highlights to end.
Eleanor Rathbone on Socialism:
“If it is Socialism to believe that there is much wrong in the present social conditions, that the rich are too rich and the poor too poor, that every worker who does a fair day’s work should receive a fair day’s wage, a wage upon which he or she can live and not merely exist: that the City Council should set the example of being a model employer, that drastic action should be taken against unsanitary slums, and that there should be a gradual effort to level up the conditions as to housing, education, opportunities for holidays and recreation, hours of labour and rates of wages – if to hold these views is Socialism, then I am a Socialist.”
She was an early opponent of Appeasement, where much of the British political and upper classes took a hands-off approach to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invading much of Europe, in the hope that they would leave Britain alone. In this Winston Churchill and her were mutual supporters and continued to have a great deal of time for each other.
She was very well connected and knew what the Nazis were doing to Jewish people in Germany long before the war. Campaigning vigorously, if largely unsuccessfully, to get the Government to recognise the situation and take what action it could, and then to accept refugees and get other governments to do so too.
When the Spanish Civil War was lost, early in 1939, she hired a ship to run the blockade of Spain and bring Republicans threatened with reprisal to safety.
During both World Wars she refused high honours for her war work, saying it was as nothing compared to those who were risking their lives every day in the fighting.
And when her Family Allowances Bill was at last about to be passed in 1945, having conceived the idea and planned and negotiated for it all of her political life, she threatened to organise a last minute campaign that would certainly have defeated the bill, because the all-male wartime cabinet was planning to pay the allowance through the man of the house. Which would have defeated its entire point of giving women payments, as of right, to bring up their children. She won the day and changed all of our days. Nancy Astor, her friend and renegade Conservative MP had this to say on her achievement:
“When Family Allowances were first mooted people on this side of the House said that it would break up the home, and the Labour Party and the trade unions would not have them at all.
We have come a great way since then, and all because of one revolutionary woman. It is very difficult, when we look at the hon. Lady the Member for the English Universities, to think of her as a revolutionary, but she is, and it is her work, and her vision and courage, that have really brought us where we are today.”
The book also tells us about Elizabeth Macadam. Missing from the only other biography of Eleanor Rathbone at her own insistence, but actually, from early days at the Victoria Settlement in Everton to her dying day in London, Eleanor Rathbone’s great friend, collaborator and constant companion. It was a different age. It was different for women then. But these two did as much as anyone to change it.
‘Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience’ is published by Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10245-3 and is available from all good public libraries. If you want to buy it, go to your local independent bookshop. In Liverpool ‘News from Nowhere’ are selling it.
Read more of my university writing here.