Eleanor Rathbone

Eleanor Florence Rathbone (12 May 1872 – 2 January 1946) was an independent British member of parliament (MP) and long-term campaigner for family allowance and for women's rights. She was a member of the noted Rathbone family of Liverpool.

Eleanor Rathbone

Member of Parliament
for Combined English Universities
Martin Conway 1929–1931
Reginald Henry Craddock 1931–1937
Thomas Edmund Harvey 1937–1945
Kenneth Martin Lindsay 1945—
In office
30 May 1929 – 2 January 1946
Prime MinisterStanley Baldwin
Preceded byAlfred Hopkinson and
Martin Conway
Succeeded byHenry Strauss and
Kenneth Martin Lindsay
Personal details
Eleanor Florence Rathbone

(1872-05-12)12 May 1872
London, England
Died2 January 1946(1946-01-02) (aged 73)
London, England
Political partyIndependent
ParentsWilliam Rathbone VI
Emily Lyle

Early lifeEdit

Rathbone was the daughter of the social reformer William Rathbone VI and his second wife, Emily Acheson Lyle. She spent her early years in Liverpool. Her family encouraged her to concentrate on social issues; the family motto was "What ought to be done, can be done."[1] Rathbone went to Kensington High School (now Kensington Prep School), London; and later went to Somerville College, Oxford, over the protests of her mother, and supported by Classics coaching from Lucy Mary Silcox.[2] She studied with tutors outside of Somerville, which at that time did not yet have a Classics tutor, taking Roman History with Henry Francis Pelham, Moral Philosophy with Edward Caird, and Greek History with Reginald Macan.[3]:96 Some of these classes were taken together with Barbara Bradby, a lifelong friend.[3]:96 Rathbone was devoted to her studies, taking little part in the entertainments available to female students such as games, and engaging in limited socialising with male students.[3]:96 Her handwriting was reportedly so poor that she had to dictate her final exam papers to a typist, and she received a result in the Second class.[3]:97 In 1894 she was one of the seven founding members of the "Associated Prigs". This was the unofficial name of the discussion group that met on Sundays evenings. The first meeting was in Edith Marvin's room. They never agreed a name or leader but the group would keep notes and the links established were valuable after they left Somerville. Another founder members was Mildred Pope[4] and other early members were Margery Fry and Hilda Oakeley.[5]

Denied an Oxford degree by her gender, she was one of the steamboat ladies who travelled to Ireland between 1904 and 1907 to receive an ad eundem University of Dublin degree (at Trinity College Dublin). After Oxford, Rathbone worked alongside her father to investigate social and industrial conditions in Liverpool, until he died in 1902. They also opposed the Second Boer War. In 1903 Rathbone published their Report on the results of a Special Inquiry into the conditions of Labour at the Liverpool Docks. In 1905 she assisted in establishing the School of Social Science at the University of Liverpool, where she lectured in public administration. Her connection with the university is still recognised by the Eleanor Rathbone building, lecture theatre and Chair of Sociology.

Local politician and campaignerEdit

In 1897, Rathbone became the Honorary Secretary of the Liverpool Women's Suffrage Society Executive Committee in which she focussed on campaigning for women to get the right to vote.[6]


Rathbone was elected as an independent member of Liverpool City Council in 1909 for the seat of Granby Ward, a position she retained until 1935.[citation needed] She wrote a series of articles to a suffragist magazine The Common Cause. Rathbone and others, such as Alice Morrissey, saw women's participation in religious, political and franchise groups co-operating in Liverpool despite the sometimes violent sectarianism and political divisions of the community at that era.[4] In 1913 with Nessie Stewart-Brown she co-founded the Liverpool Women Citizen's Association to promote women's involvement in political affairs. Rathbone and others, such as Alice Morrissey saw women's participation in religious, political and franchise groups co-operating in Liverpool despite the sometimes violent sectarianism and political divisions of the community at that era.[7]

At the outbreak of the First World War, Rathbone organised the Town Hall Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association (today known as SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity) to support wives and dependants of soldiers. Rathbone formed the "1918 Club" in Liverpool (still meeting at the Adelphi Hotel), reputedly the oldest women's forum still meeting.

From 1918 onwards, Rathbone was arguing for a system of family allowances paid directly to mothers. She also opposed violent repression of rebellion in Ireland (see Irish Home Rule movement). She was instrumental in negotiating the terms of women's inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act.

In 1919, when Millicent Fawcett retired, Rathbone took over the presidency of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (the renamed National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies), and as such was responsible for the creation of the Liverpool Personal Service Society. She became the first chair of PSS. She also campaigned for women's rights in India.

She contested the 1922 General Election as an Independent candidate at Liverpool East Toxteth against the sitting Unionist MP and was defeated.[8]

In 1924 in the Disinherited Family, she argued that economic dependence of women was based on the practice of supporting variably-sized families with wages that were paid to men, regardless of whether the men had families or not. Later she exposed insurance regulations that reduced married women's access to unemployment benefits and health insurance.

Westminster politicianEdit

Rathbone campaigned for Parliament as a feminist, stating "I am standing as a woman, not because I believe there is any antagonism between men's and women's interests but because I believe there is need in the House of Commons for more women who can represent directly the special experience and point of view of women."[1]

In 1929 Rathbone entered parliament as an independent MP for the Combined English Universities. One of her first speeches was about what is now known as female genital mutilation in Kenya, then a British colony.[9][1] During the Depression, she campaigned for cheap milk and better benefits for the children of the unemployed. In 1931 she helped to organise the defeat of a proposal to abolish the university seats in the parliament and won re-election in 1935.

Blue plaque on her house in Tufton Street, Westminster

Rathbone realised the nature of Nazi Germany and in the 1930s joined the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council to support human rights. In 1936 she began to warn about a Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia. She also favoured rearmament and argued for its necessity in the Manchester Guardian.[10]

She became an outspoken critic of appeasement in Parliament. She denounced British complacency in Hitler's remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the Italian conquest of Abyssinia and about the Spanish Civil War. Once she tried to hire a ship to run the blockade of Spain and remove Republicans at risk from reprisals. Her determination was such that junior ministers and civil servants of the Foreign Office would reputedly duck behind pillars when they saw her coming. She supported the points of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee but earned the enmity of Neville Chamberlain.

In 1936, Rathbone was one of several people who supported the British Provisional Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky, and signed a letter to the Manchester Guardian defending Trotsky's right to asylum and calling for an international inquiry into the Moscow Trials.[11]

On 30 September 1938, Rathbone denounced the just-publicised Munich Agreement. She pressured the parliament to aid the Czechoslovaks and grant entry for dissident Germans, Austrians and Jews. In late 1938 she set up the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees to take up individual cases from Spain, Czechoslovakia and Germany. During World War II she regularly chastised Osbert Peake, undersecretary at the Home Office, and in 1942 pressured the government to publicise the evidence of the Holocaust.

Personal lifeEdit

At the end of the First World War, Rathbone and the social work campaigner Elizabeth Macadam bought a house in London together.[12] The two friends continued to share the house until Rathbone's sudden death in January 1946.

Rathbone was a first cousin once-removed of the actor Basil Rathbone. Her nephew John Rankin Rathbone was the Conservative MP for Bodmin from 1935 until his death in the Battle of Britain, 1940, when his wife Beatrice succeeded him as MP. Her great-nephew Tim Rathbone was Conservative MP for Lewes from 1974 to 1997.

Her great-niece, Jenny Rathbone, was a Labour councillor in Islington and later was the Parliamentary Candidate for the Labour Party in the South Wales constituency of Cardiff Central at the 2010 General Election. She was elected to the National Assembly for Wales as representative for Cardiff Central in the 2011 National Assembly elections.


Eleanor Rathbone Building, University of Liverpool

In 1945, the year before her death, Eleanor Rathbone saw the Family Allowances Act pass into law.

In 1986, a blue plaque was erected for her by Greater London Council at Tufton Court, Tufton Street, Westminster, London SW1P 3QH, City of Westminster, where she had lived.[13]

Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.[14][15][16]

The University of Liverpool acknowledges Rathbone by way of its Eleanor Rathbone Building; the site houses the School of Law and Social Justice and the Dept of Psychology, as well as the Eleanor Rathbone Theatre used for stage productions and musical performances. Edge Hill University has a hall of residence called Eleanor Rathbone in honour of her work as a social reformer.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Reeves, Rachel, 1979- (7 March 2019). Women of Westminster : the MPs who changed politics. London. ISBN 978-1-78831-677-4. OCLC 1084655208.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Oldfield, Sybil. "Silcox, Lucy Mary". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53822. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ a b c d Brittain, Vera (1960). The Women at Oxford. London: George G. Harrap & Co. ltd.
  4. ^ "Associated Prigs (act. 1894–1899)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/93709. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  5. ^ "Marvin [née Deverell], Edith Mary (1872–1958), inspector of schools". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/48586. Retrieved 29 October 2020.
  6. ^ Helmond, Marij van (1992). Votes for women : the events on Merseyside 1870-1928. Great Britain: National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside. p. 26. ISBN 090636745X.
  7. ^ Suffrage Reader : Charting Directions in British Suffrage History. Eustance, Claire., Ryan, Joan., Ugolini, Laura. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2000. ISBN 978-1-4411-8885-4. OCLC 952932390.CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1983). British parliamentary election results 1918–1949 (3 ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-06-X.
  9. ^ Pedersen, Susan (1 December 1991). "National Bodies, Unspeakable Acts: The Sexual Politics of Colonial Policy-making". The Journal of Modern History. 63 (4): 647–680. doi:10.1086/244384. ISSN 0022-2801.
  10. ^ Martin Gilbert, Prophet of Truth: Winston S. Churchill, 1922–1939 (London: Minerva, 1990), p. 722.
  11. ^ Robert Jackson Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement. Duke University Press, 1991 ISBN 082231066X (p. 451)
  12. ^ "Macadam, Elizabeth (1871–1948), social worker". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53582. Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  13. ^ "RATHBONE, Eleanor (1872-1946)". English Heritage. 20 February 1943. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  14. ^ "Historic statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett unveiled in Parliament Square". Gov.uk. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  15. ^ Topping, Alexandra (24 April 2018). "First statue of a woman in Parliament Square unveiled". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  16. ^ "Millicent Fawcett statue unveiling: the women and men whose names will be on the plinth". iNews. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  17. ^ Last updated on 16 April 2018 (16 April 2018). "Living on Campus". Edgehill.ac.uk. Retrieved 26 April 2018.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit


The archive of Eleanor Rathbone is held at the University of Liverpool's Special Collections & Archives. Other papers are held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, ref 7ELR

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Alfred Hopkinson and
Sir Martin Conway
Member of Parliament for the Combined English Universities
With: Sir Martin Conway to 1931
Sir Reginald Henry Craddock 1931–1937
Thomas Edmund Harvey 1937–1945
Kenneth Martin Lindsay 1945—
Succeeded by
Henry Strauss and
Kenneth Martin Lindsay