Midwife of the welfare state

Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience
September 10, 2004

Nancy Astor, the first female MP, said of Eleanor Rathbone: "It is very difficult when we look at [her] 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." Eleanor Rathbone MP was much less famous than her contemporary Astor, but she was a familiar figure in Parliament in her "uniform of shapeless black dresses and her bag of bulging files", and she was one of the key influences in laying the groundwork for the welfare state. Susan Pedersen's excellent biography recovers and reappraises Rathbone's life.

Eleanor Rathbone was born in 1872 into a wealthy Liverpool family that embraced the causes of free trade, religious toleration and municipal improvement. Though rich, the Rathbones lived modestly, and Eleanor's father, William, turned his eye more to his duties as a Liberal MP than to those as a businessman. Unusually for a Victorian patriarch, he saw his daughter as his political heir, a fact he recognised in his will.

Rathbone's not-insignificant personal wealth played an important role in supporting her public life and campaigns.

Her portrait on the cover reveals a solid and serious face. Her mother complained, "Eleanor was never young from the day she was born." At Oxford University, Rathbone began a discussion club called the "Associated Prigs" and was known for being high-handed but otherworldly, always forgetting meal times and very occupied with her studies. This is a characteristic that recurs through the book: distracted by work, Rathbone prefers cigarettes to food, she "doesn't dress", she "wears clothes". Rathbone's battle with her mother to get to university illuminates tensions for women at the time and highlights her desperation to escape an ascribed domestic role.

She chose to live her domestic life with her friend Elizabeth Macadam. The only other substantial biography of Rathbone, by her contemporary Mary Stocks, comments on Macadam's "passion for household management" and inferior mind. Pedersen, however, places her more centrally. "New women" saw themselves as committed spinsters who rejected marriage to pursue public equality with men. Pedersen is a delicate biographer, sensitive to "our inevitable and prurient questions about sexual life". She is careful to give Rathbone's partnership with Macadam due emotional significance without lending it a sexual role for which she can find no evidence.

Macadam's contribution to the development of social work complements Rathbone's own ideas as a local councillor; charitable work should be replaced by professional support provided by the state.

Rathbone's lifelong political campaigning was embedded in feminism. Women's votes enabled her election as a councillor in 1909. Women's issues drove her work on poverty in Liverpool. She campaigned locally and nationally for suffrage until full franchise. In 1912, Rathbone published The Problem of Women's Wages , the beginning of her discussion of the relationship between women's equality, pay and the role of marriage. "The difference between the wages of men and women," she wrote, "is due to the different consequences which marriage has for the two sexes." The Disinherited Family (1924) followed, arguing that discussions about poverty should not centre on the male wage but on the family as a unit. Through careful presentation of statistics on national income and dependency, she made the case for family allowances that redistributed income from the childless to those with children. The book was well received and had soon converted contemporaries such as William Beveridge and later John Maynard Keynes. When the Family Allowances Bill was finally introduced in 1945 as part of the embryonic welfare state, it was Rathbone, "the grandmother of this proposal", who fiercely stuck to the position that it must be payable to the woman.

Rathbone's passionate sympathy with individual suffering inspired her international work, including her position against child marriage in India, her work for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, most important, her campaigns for refugees in the Second World War. Having argued strongly against appeasement, she was horrified to discover what was happening to the Jews. She was vociferous in the cause of the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, which she had been instrumental in founding. Able to fund much of the work herself, she became a constant irritant to the Government, but this time, ruling politicians found it easier to ignore her matronly figure. The impact of her work in this area is disputed by historians, but Pedersen views Rathbone's contribution as "not utopian, but pragmatic and sane", and she admires her subject's politics of conscience.

Rathbone's tenaciousness was incredible. In her career as an MP, which began in 1929 and ended with her death in 1946, she asked more than 900 parliamentary questions. If this biography occasionally loses its pace, it is due to Pedersen's painstaking attention to the detail of the political process and to the extent of her formidable research. But more important, her book offers a new vantage point on key issues of the 20th century.

Antonia Byatt is director, The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University.

Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience

Author - Susan Pedersen
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 469
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 10245 3

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