Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience 
by Susan Pedersen.
Yale, 469 pp., £25, March 2004, 0 300 10245 3
Show More
Show More

When Susan Pedersen writes that Eleanor Rathbone was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century she might have added that another Somerville alumna, Margaret Thatcher, clearly earned that title in the century’s second half. No one can doubt the extent to which Thatcher stamped herself on the 1980s, but the effect of reading this fine biography is to make one wonder, not just why Rathbone is now forgotten but whether she wasn’t Thatcher’s superior in everything but achieving power. As you look back at the causes Rathbone took up – votes for women, family allowances, feminism, family planning, anti-Nazism (immediately Hitler came to power), the plight of colonial women, Jewish refugees, anti-appeasement, the Spanish Republic, wartime internees, the Polish officers deported to the USSR (at a time when other left-wingers were loath to support such an ‘anti-Communist’ cause), Keynesian economics before it was fashionable, German civilians at the war’s end – you really can’t fault her. She was so wonderfully clear-sighted that it’s not even surprising to find her warning of the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet pact two years before the event.

Since all the positions she took, no matter how controversial at the time, have been thoroughly vindicated by history, reading about Rathbone makes you feel that her moral and political instincts were those of a contemporary. Yet she belongs to a long vanished world. The daughter of a prosperous Quaker (later Unitarian) merchant family in Liverpool, she grew up in an atmosphere of almost impossible high-mindedness. Her father, William, seeing wealth as a threat to virtue, was filled with anxiety lest his building up of the family fortune might constitute a moral danger to his children. Believing that payment of a tithe was too little, he encouraged the notion that one should give away everything beyond what was strictly necessary to leading a modest existence. His first wife, Lucretia, was such a miracle of self-abnegation and anxious piety that had she not died from consumption she would surely have perished from excessive virtue. William was saved from this life of hair-shirtedness by Emily, his more worldly and practical second wife (and Eleanor’s mother) who, seeing that amassing yet more money seemed to make William unhappy, encouraged him to become a Gladstonian Liberal MP instead.

Eleanor, even in her father’s eyes, was ‘an awful little prig, always asking whether to do something would not be good for her’, while her mother observed that, with her big serious eyes, she ‘never was young from the time she was born’. In adult life people generally found her formidable: direct, interested only in the great issues, endlessly earnest, with no small talk, and more intelligent and better educated than almost everyone she met. This last she owed in large measure to Somerville, where she met her real peers, women like Margery Fry and Lettice Ilbert (later Mrs H.A.L. Fisher), engaged in endless idealistic debates in their discussion group, the APs (Associated Prigs), and worked at her studies in a way few men of the time did.

One of the best things in this book is its painstaking evocation of that first feminist generation. By the 1890s, mothers knew that higher education for women was ‘an intellectual smallpox’, a disfigurement which would remove its recipients from the marriage market – which is to say, from life. The Cambridge colleges of Newnham and Girton were particularly reviled: ‘if you’re naughty, you’ll have to go to Girton,’ Beatrice Webb’s sister warned her daughters. And, indeed, half the women who went to them did remain single, whether through male revulsion at the idea of an educated mate or their own unwillingness to accept the constraints of traditional marriage. What is striking is that this was an outcome many of these women welcomed. Education and emancipation went hand in hand and if that meant you had to give up men and babies, or give up sex altogether, so be it. They accepted that their only true peers, the people they would want to spend their lives with, were educated spinsters like themselves. These were not the daughters of the Great War, sadly acknowledging that after Flanders there wouldn’t be enough men to go round: they were, altogether more powerfully, the daughters of the Naughty Nineties, ready to give up everything for the life of the mind and sexual equality.

Eleanor Rathbone was not just a member of this founding generation but its greatest exemplar. That she could ever be forgotten is mainly a comment on the tribalism of party memory. As an Independent, both on Liverpool City Council and in Parliament, she holds no place in the party pantheons. Yet she was a far greater figure than Ellen Wilkinson, Nancy Astor, Margaret Bondfield or Barbara Castle. Her neglect shows how important it is to have members of your party or faction evoking your name as part of their tradition.

Perhaps the greatest recent example of what this can do for popular memory is Aneurin Bevan, whose myth reflected mainly the Left’s need, in the era of Labour government and compromise, to retain at least one untarnished tribune. In fact, Bevan made plenty of compromises; his achievement was neither large nor lasting and, temperamentally unable to bear the triumph of Churchill’s equally enormous ego, he was guilty of some ill-judged point-scoring against him during the war. In 1943, his long guerrilla campaign against Churchill – just back from Tehran and a tour of the Middle East – culminated in an attempt to embarrass him over the antics of his son, Randolph. Rathbone erupted. Though normally on Bevan’s side on social policy, she accused him of ‘a malicious and virulent dislike’ of Churchill and said that attacking Churchill, ‘the very first time at which he was able to attend the House after a long illness, following upon a long and dangerous journey undertaken in the interests of the nation’, was a prime ‘example of bad taste’. Bevan sat, mortified, as she spoke of her ‘disgust and almost loathing’ of ‘these cattish displays of feline malice’. The confrontation caused a sensation and silenced Bevan for some time, but you won’t read about it in Michael Foot or Barbara Castle’s endless evocations of ‘Nye, fighting for socialism’. Rathbone, who had no such praise-singers, went home to apologise to her cat, Smuts, for her use of the word ‘feline’.

After Somerville, she had returned to do charitable work in Liverpool. Elected to its city council in 1909, she was one of only 14 women councillors in the whole of England and Wales. At least as important, she formed a life-long friendship with Elizabeth Macadam, a strong, independent Scot who was to share her houses and be her main emotional support through life. Pedersen deals sensitively and well with this relationship as far as she is able – for both women went to extraordinary lengths to destroy their correspondence. On the evidence a lesbian relationship seems to be ruled out. Indeed, that generation of feminists were unsettled by the rise of Freudianism and the celebration of female sexuality. Not only did Eleanor and Elizabeth now have to guard the privacy of their relationship but the whole attitude to sex had changed. When they were young radical feminists had pilloried married women as ‘sexual parasites’ – virtual prostitutes. Rathbone’s feminism had included a refusal of sex: it was bewildering to find that the new women of the 1920s preached liberation through sexual fulfilment.

Macadam, though never really accepted by the Rathbone family, kept house and was clearly the dominant partner. Eleanor, a wealthy woman, hadn’t the faintest idea about cooking or housework and left all that to Elizabeth, though Elizabeth herself was a tough-minded social reformer and determined not to be mistaken for one of Eleanor’s servants. ‘You should be grateful,’ she admonished one of the hard-pressed secretaries, who found that Rathbone expected others to work as hard as she did, ‘Lady Astor dictates her letters through the lavatory door.’

Pedersen’s grasp of the Liverpool background seems a little unsure. England possessed no tougher, more violent or more polyglot city, torn by riots and by sectarian tensions. As it became polarised between Orange Toryism and Catholic radicalism, the Liberal middle classes, such as the Rathbones, were squeezed out. Despite the fact that earlier Rathbones had espoused the anti-slavery cause, I can’t help wondering if there wasn’t a vein of guilt in their and Eleanor’s make-up. My own father’s family had, through a long-bankrupt ships’ tools firm, once profited from the slave trade, as I reflected when, as a boy, I was shown the iron rings in the Liverpool dock walls where the slaves had been tethered. But the Rathbones had, far earlier, made much bigger money importing cotton from the American South – which meant just one thing. Pedersen is silent on this. Similarly, when Eleanor first ran for Parliament in East Toxteth in 1922, an anonymous Tory leaflet wreaked havoc with its claim that her demand for family allowances amounted to a tax on single men to support other men’s large families: Pedersen doesn’t seem to realise that in Liverpool this would be understood to mean ‘large Catholic families’, playing into the Orange conviction that ‘they breed like rabbits’ – a taunt with which every member of the Catholic ghetto was familiar from an early age. Rathbone was operating on the edge of that sectarian divide. In the end, a defiant and largely Catholic subculture would produce its own spokespeople, among them another remarkable woman politician, this time speaking with the accent of the docks, Bessie Braddock. By then, Rathbone had given up her council seat and migrated to London; she would hardly have belonged in what Liverpool was to become.

Rathbone is best remembered for her classic work, The Disinherited Family (1924), but her theoretical breakthrough came in 1912, as she puzzled over the economic position of married women and the fact that women’s wages were always lower than men’s. Previously, experts had put this down to women being less well educated, having fewer skills, not being unionised or just having simpler needs, but Rathbone believed the key lay in the fact that, on marriage, the vast majority of women withdrew from the labour market. This meant that ‘the great bulk of the financial cost of rearing fresh generations has to come out of the earnings of the male parent,’ who accordingly drew ‘a family wage’, while women were paid what was thought adequate for a single person only. This was wrong, not only because it offended against the principle of equality but because in practice many women did have dependants. Moreover, the whole of the family wage was paid to the man, who could by no means be relied on to pass its share on to the rest of the family. Housewives performed work crucial to society but their wages were, in effect, paid to men. Rathbone was the first to grasp that poverty mostly affected women and children and the solution had to be a system of family allowances, paid directly to mothers.

This offended almost everybody. Feminists were horrified that the notion of a family wage provided theoretical support for unequal wages. By connecting the inequality to the domestic division of labour, Rathbone had left it open to reactionaries to argue that since marriage was biologically essential, unequal pay was natural and inevitable. Some suffragettes were deeply suspicious of this concern being shown for women who had chosen to marry, while socialists were uncomfortable with a system of redistribution between genders, for this had nothing to do with class – besides, locating poverty within families meant the problem was no longer a straightforward product of capitalism. Conservatives naturally argued that family allowances would reduce the incentive for men to work, while trade unionists hated her ideas most of all, because once the notion of a family wage was accepted, it made it possible for the payment of family allowances to be seen as an argument for cutting wages.

Rathbone’s close acquaintance with working-class life had left her with no illusions about what she believed to be a universal male will to domination, expressed in the first place through men’s power over their wives and children. Unhindered by modern notions of political correctness, she labelled this ‘the Turk complex’. She wasn’t a man-hater, but saw no point in beating about the bush: progress depended on defeating the Turk complex. Frustrated at being opposed in the Commons by male blockheads, she wondered aloud ‘that any woman wants to marry anybody’. But she had no time for foolish women either. Beside herself at Hitler’s threat to the Jews, she was infuriated by interwar pacifism. Referring to herself as ‘an elderly Victorian’, she expressed bewilderment at the ‘readiness with which the postwar generation throws in the sponge’. When Virginia Woolf, saddened by the death of her nephew Julian Bell in Spain, called on women to see that Fascism, war and patriotism were all the work of men and adopt a principled pacifism, Rathbone dismissed her out of hand, quite careless of the fact that most women were pro-appeasement. When war came she sent off Jane Austen (her car) for war service, volunteered for war work herself – she was 67 – and, confronted by young women asking her to stop the Ministry of Labour sending them to work in factories far from home, rounded on them as shirkers, sternly telling them that sexual equality meant that women, too, ought to face conscription.

Rathbone spent much of her career lobbying ministers with well prepared cases. Her advocacy of family allowances saw her meet furious opposition from Walter Citrine, Ernest Bevin and, to its undying shame, the whole Trade Union Group in Parliament. The more she tried to persuade the diehard trade unionists to focus on the fact that more than half of all children lived in poverty, the more determined these local exemplars of the Turk complex were that they wouldn’t be lectured to by educated middle-class women: they were able to ensure that family allowances didn’t make it onto the Labour agenda until 1945. Rathbone, not unreasonably, concluded that the Labour Party was hopelessly male-dominated. What better proof than her failure to prevent the first Labour woman minister, Margaret Bondfield, from singling out married women as welfare-scroungers who had to be deprived of unemployment benefits? The more Rathbone pleaded, the more Bondfield spouted this traditional male nonsense.

Similarly, when she took up the case of raped child wives in India, the Secretary of State for India, William Wedgwood Benn, tried everything to shut her up, warning that by raising such questions she was ‘doing the greatest possible disservice to His Majesty’s Government’. Little wonder that Rathbone counselled Indian women friends that ‘men are much the same the world over,’ meaning that when they didn’t actually commit rape they would, like Wedgwood Benn, find excuses for it. It was the same when she took up the Kenyan practice of female genital mutilation with the Colonial Secretary, Sidney Webb. Webb put her views to colonial governors, who predictably told Webb to shut her up. Worst of all was the wartime home secretary, Herbert Morrison: the more often Rathbone went to him to plead for more Jewish refugees to be let into Britain, the more brutally he dismissed her, insisting that if he gave way she would only spark an anti-semitic reaction. When she tried to save one consignment of 2000 Jewish children from the Nazis he was adamant: ‘Where was it to end? If he gave in and allowed 2000 children in now, she would be back badgering him as the position got worse – oh yes, Miss Rathbone, whatever you say, I know you would.’

Rathbone would have made an outstanding minister. Both Attlee (whom she knew from early days through the social work movement) and Churchill had a high opinion of her and repeatedly pressed her to accept this or that honour, something she always declined, usually citing the far greater merits of others, but in reality because the whole notion of honours offended her egalitarian conscience. But high office was out of the question: not only was the political situation not propitious at that period of her life when she might theoretically have become a minister, but party tribalism was far too strong for a cabinet post to be given to an Independent. She, for her part, seems never to have considered the notion. As an MP for the Combined English Universities she had little notion of constituency, she simply did what she thought right and then waited to see what her voters thought – they re-elected her by ever greater majorities.

Yet her practical achievements were tremendous. Apart from her many philanthropic donations, she was a founder of the school of social science at Liverpool University, she single-handedly got the municipal vote extended to women, did more for refugees and internees than any other MP and finally saw family allowances come to pass: when the Commons tried to pay these allowances to men, she, again single-handedly, insisted they go to mothers. And which other woman held earnest discussions with Kenyatta and Nehru, Churchill and Attlee, Beveridge and Keynes, and was treated by all of them as their intellectual equal?

Most revealing of all was her relationship with Jews. In interwar Palestine she was bowled over by the Jewish women she met – Goldie Myerson (Golda Meir) and her friends – and spoke admiringly of the way ‘the women of the Jewish community have gone further ahead than the women of any other race anywhere’: she hoped only that they would help emancipate their Arab sisters. Then, desperately campaigning for Jewish refugees to be admitted to Britain, she wrote a pamphlet setting out to refute Jewish stereotypes which put Victor Gollancz and Sidney Silverman on edge: they were horrified to see the stereotypes so clearly set out. This she couldn’t easily understand. For what she, like Thatcher, a daughter of the provincial bourgeoisie, felt was that if Jews exhibited a certain clannishness or a determined parsimony, this was admirable, that the Jews were the modern exemplars of the Protestant ethic and all the more precious for being so.

Rathbone died suddenly of a stroke in 1946. She has had no obvious heir: of the Labour women who have since achieved office none had her intellect or courage and virtually all have been ready to accept the political honours that she, rightly, would have spurned. She would have been appalled by Thatcher’s cruelty and her philistinism but were they to meet in the after-life, they might find much to talk about: the ghastliness of the Labour Party; the greatness of Churchill; the qualities of the Jews; the nonsense of pacifism and the necessity for patriotism; the fraudulence of the anti-colonial lobby – and the appalling nature of men.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 26 No. 15 · 5 August 2004

According to R.W. Johnson, Eleanor Rathbone’s censure of Aneurin Bevan in 1943 is absent from the recollections of Bevan’s followers (LRB, 8 July). Michael Foot’s biography of Bevan refers to it in a footnote. He also quotes the News Chronicle’s interpretation of the episode as a ‘maternal spanking’.

Mark Mabberley
Crawley, West Sussex

R.W. Johnson says that Eleanor Rathbone ‘single-handedly got the municipal vote extended to women’. In fact, there have been female local government electors since 1869, three years before she was born.

Mike Killingworth
London W2

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences