Defender of the new faith

Eleanor Rathbone
February 14, 1997

Eleanor Rathbone never achieved fame, being - for all her public involvements - a reserved and rather shy woman, awkward in many social situations and far too principled to be a comfortable political ally. Yet we should remember her, for her life demonstrates what could be accomplished by a woman of intelligence, courage and determination in the first half of our century. Rathbone had three related but distinct careers: the first as a suffragist, municipal reformer and city councillor in Liverpool before the first world war; the second as the most articulate defender of an interwar "new feminism" aimed at winning economic independence and public recognition for mothers; and the last as an Independent MP from 1929 until 1946. In all three of these careers, Rathbone sought "not the optimum, but the achievable optimum," winning in unfavourable political conditions modest gains towards her quite radical goals. More effective than Nancy Astor, more politically astute than Ellen Wilkinson, more independent minded than Margaret Bondfield or even than the "Red Duchess" of Atholl, Eleanor Rathbone stands as the most significant woman in political life in the years before 1945.

Johanna Alberti's accessible short study will help to make this remarkable woman better known. Published within a series designed to introduce "women of ideas" to students and general readers, the book pays particular attention to Rathbone's important and now little-studied political writings. Like many social reformers, Rathbone wrote a good deal, publishing several early works of social investigation, three books on family allowances, one on child marriage in India, one on international affairs in the thirties, and numerous reports, articles and speeches on issues ranging from child welfare to the problems of refugees. One of her books, The Disinherited Family, a study of the social costs of an economic system organised around the male family wage, remains a minor classic but much of this writing was done for pragmatic political reasons; having a Victorian's characteristic faith in the power of "public opinion", she wrote to convince. Alberti has thus rightly embedded her discussion of the writings within a broader narrative of Rathbone's political life, skilfully tracing how the ideas were shaped by - and helped to shape - the feminist and reforming movements with which she was so closely identified.

In her chapters on women's politics between the wars, Alberti's choice to approach the life largely through the published writings works well. Yet there are also some costs to this heavy reliance on Rathbone's writings. A first cost is that we never get much sense from this study of the emotional and psychological roots of Rathbone's beliefs. Rathbone's complex relationship with her mother and her many siblings, the profound impression made upon her by the idealist philosophers with whom she studied at Oxford, the crucial contribution made by Elizabeth Macadam both to her early efforts in social work in Liverpool and to her personal happiness, are all treated far too summarily. And this approach leads Alberti to overlook crucial aspects of Rathbone's political life as well. Most seriously, Rathbone's final wartime struggle to force the British government to respond to the reports of German atrocities against the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe is scarcely mentioned, largely because Rathbone - absorbed in the direct lobbying of government ministers and hampered by her reluctance to do anything that might hinder the war effort - published almost nothing on the subject. Yet the archivally based studies of Bernard Wasserstein, Tony Kushner and others have uncovered Rathbone's central role behind these campaigns, an effort so intense and serious that Kush- ner's recent book on British and American responses to the Holocaust is dedicated to her memory. The most successful chapter of the book is, in fact, that on Rathbone's complicated and sometimes misguided interventions in Indian politics, for here Alberti relies less on Rathbone's published writings than on the very extensive correspondence between Rathbone and Indian feminists preserved in the Fawcett library. In this chapter, we get to see the politician in action, and begin to appreciate the personal convictions and relationships that both drove and complicated the public work.

Susan Pedersen is professor of history, Harvard University.

Eleanor Rathbone

Author - Johanna Alberti
ISBN - 0 8039 8875 3 and 8876 1
Publisher - Sage
Price - £30 and £9.95
Pages - 208[[

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