Partner Elizabeth Macadam
(1913) Greenbank, Greenbank Ln, Liverpool L17, UK
University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, UK
Tufton St, Westminster, London SW1P 3QH, UK
Toxteth Park Cemetery, 215 Smithdown Rd, Liverpool L15 2HF, UK
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. Her name and picture (and those of 58 other women and men's suffrage supporters) are on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.
Eleanor Rathbone, in the preface to her book, Child Marriage: the Indian Minotaur, formally recorded the support given by her life-partner Elizabeth Macadam: “I must acknowledge the debt I owe not only to these authorities but to my friend, Elizabeth Macadam, who has read the script throughout and insisted on modifying some of its acridities.” Many British women’s partnerships were quieter and less exotic affairs, but their prevalence is still remarkable. In one of the early women’s Settlements in Liverpool, the British family allowances campaigner Eleanor Rathbone met her partner, Elizabeth Macadam, and the two worked for the next 17 years to put the Settlement on a sound footing and transfer its training of women social workers to the University of Liverpool. A photograph shows the two women sitting companionably in the garden of the cottage where Rathbone wrote her anti-government book about foreign policy in the 1930s. In 1919 Rathbone and Macadam moved to London, where they lived together for the rest of Rathbone’s life, Macadam, it is said, increasingly adopting the role of ‘political wife’ (a role that may have led to a certain downplaying in the historical record of Macadam’s own worthy achievements as a social reformer).
Women liaised with each other internationally through the League of Nations, the Women’s Freedom League, the British Commonwealth League and the Save the Children Fund. They also collaborated in expressing their political ideas through writing for journals such as Time and Tide edited by Margaret Haig, The Shield edited by Alison Neilans, the Woman’s Leader coedited by Elizabeth Macadam, and collaborated to write books such as Our Freedom and its Results by Five Women, edited by Ray Strachey and with contributions by Eleanor Rathbone, Ray Strachey, Erna Reiss, Alison Neilans and Mary Agnes Hamilton.
Eleanor Rathbone and Elizabeth Macadam in 1937
Rathbone was the daughter of the social reformer William Rathbone VI and his second wife, Emily Acheson Lyle. Her family encouraged her to concentrate on social issues. 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. Eleanor Rathbone chose to go to Oxford for her university education and at the age of twenty-one at Somerville College met significant friends, Hilda Oakley and Barbara Bradley, who were to last a lifetime. Other women in Eleanor’s circle of friends included Agnes Catherine Maitland, the Principal of Somerville, Alice Bruce, the Vice-Principal, Mildred Pope, the modern language tutor, and Sara Melhuish, the history tutor. Eleanor Lodge, who went to Oxford with Eleanor Rathbone, wrote in her autobiography, Terms and Vacations, after visiting the Rathbone family at their Greenbank home, “The effect of a butler opening the door to me was almost paralysing, but Mr. and Mrs. Rathbone were kindness itself, and I came to admire and love their daughter Eleanor…”
After graduation, 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.
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.
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. She wrote a series of articles to a suffragist magazine The Common Cause. In 1913 with Nessie Stewart-Brown she co-founded the Liverpool Women Citizen's Association to promote women's involvement in political affairs.
At the outbreak of the World War I, 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. 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.
Nina Boyle met Eleanor Rathbone through their shared interest in campaigning against sexual slavery and the two women often shared a platform “at feminist events in the 1920s and 1930s”. Eleanor Rathbone, Nina Boyle, Marian Reeves, Elsa Gye, Winifred Holtby, Alison Neilans, Edith Craig, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were among the feminists who shared membership in the Myra Sadd Brown Memorial Library, which suggests that these women held similar intellectual, political and literary interests.
Rathbone contested the 1922 General Election as an Independent candidate at Liverpool East Toxteth against the sitting Unionist MP and was defeated.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of the First World War, Rathbone and the social work campaigner Elizabeth Macadam bought a house in London together. Rathbone and Macadam had met in Liverpool in 1902. The two friends continued to share the house until Rathbone's sudden death in January 1946. Mary Stocks was both friend and political ally to Rathbone and Macadam. According to Stocks, after Rathbone and Macadam met at the Committee of the Victoria Women’s Settlement, “Elizabeth Macadam became in due course the friend and companion of Eleanor’s existence until death did them part, and at no subsequent time was Eleanor lonely.” Lesbian feminist historians have since been grateful for Stocks’ clue confirming the importance of the passionate alliance between Rathbone and Macadam. Stocks, as a close friend of Elizabeth and Eleanor, called on other close friends such as Hilda Oakley and Eva Hubback to contribute to Rathbone’s biographical details. Rathbone’s and Macadam’s relationship flourished despite the discomfort of Rathbone’s family and at one stage Rathbone wrote to Macadam countering her loneliness after a period of separation, “except when I am with you I am always alone to all intents and purposes.”
Nina Boyle’s political and friendship network was far-reaching and on her death in 1943, a memorial fund was set up by her women colleagues specifically to keep alive the political issues that Nina Boyle fought for all her feminist career. The Nina Boyle Memorial Committee comprised Cicely Hamilton as chairwoman, Elsa Gye as honorary secretary and Marie Lawson, honorary treasurer. Members of Parliament who were also patrons to the Nina Boyle Memorial Fund included Eleanor Rathbone, Nancy Astor, Ellen Wilkinson, Irene Ward, Dr. Edith Summerskill and Megan Lloyd George.
Mary Stocks, Eleanor Rathbone, Alison Neilans, Edith Picton-Turbervill and Maude Royden were, as representatives of the NUSEC, among the delegates at the tenth congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship (IAWSEC) in 1926. The Board of the Alliance at the time was presided over by Margery Corbett Ashby and included among the international complement of its board members, Bessie Rischbieth of Australia who was also on the Finance Committee. Rathbone was the ‘chairman’ of the international committee on “Family Endowment or Allowances.” Alison Neilans represented the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene. The international matrix at this congress comprised hundreds of women, many of whom were self-declared feminists and who represented national and international organisations. Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi was among the Indian delegates.
The International Alliance worked with the League of Nations on a cross-section of political, legal, social, moral and economic questions. In particular the Alliance felt a measure of their success was working with Dame Rachel Crowdy the “chief” of the social and moral section of the League; Avril de Sainte-Croix from France on the Commission against the traffic in women and children. Eleanor Rathbone who promoted the idea of family allowances in the Commission set up for the protection of the child, and Paulina Luisi from South Americas who succeeded in putting forward the urgent problem of raising the legal age of marriage. Luisi reported on the cross-cultural aspect of early marriage and early age of consent: “It is a problem for the west as for the east since many western countries have the age set appallingly low”. These women worked together in areas that challenged the automatic acceptance of the conjugal rights of men and promoted the understanding that the premature sexualisation of children including early marriage was a universal problem.
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.
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