Eleanor Rathbone was a truly distinguished woman, born in the late Victorian era when middle-class women had little expectation of, or opportunity to carve a meaningful independent career for themselves. But her philosophy on life, her conscience and her belief in responsible citizenship informed her future, and she determined to devote her working life to championing on behalf of the under-represented in society, regardless of race, religion or gender. What followed is an exemplar of how a resolute individual was able to make a mark on society, often against the tide of opinion and convention.
First, there was Eleanor the pioneering student at Somerville College, Oxford, the active feminist and suffragist who favoured discussion over destruction. Then, in Liverpool, she embarked on a career as a social and welfare investigator and reformer, concerned about issues such as dock labourers, poor housing, women’s education, separation allowances and, very significantly, family and child poverty. Those who know anything about Eleanor usually make the connection between her and the family allowance, or child benefit, which she insisted was paid directly to mothers. She was indeed the architect of this benefit, and fought her corner from 1917 until the Family Allowance Act came onto the statute book in 1945.
There was much in between: she was the first woman councillor on Liverpool City Council, a post which she held from 1909 until 1935 and she was a Justice of the Peace. She was actively engaged in national and international politics, was an anti-appeaser and in 1929 was returned as the Independent MP for the Combined English Universities. Parliamentary Questions, deputations, letters, telegrams and telephone calls were all utilised in her energetic campaigns, whether they were on behalf of, for example, child refugees from the Spanish Civil War, child brides in India and Palestine, people being enslaved, or refugees, mostly Jews, and in and from Nazi Europe. Two committees, the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees and the National Committee for Recue from Nazi Terror both reflected her determination to keep this unparalleled humanitarian crisis in the public eye. For this she became known as the MP for Refugees.
Eleanor put all her time and energy into helping those less fortunate than herself, often at great personal cost, especially upon her health. She deserves much greater recognition for her lifetime’s devotion to the welfare of others, and that is why we are determined to commemorate and celebrate her contribution to society during 2016, the 70th anniversary of her death in 1946, and beyond, with some tangible memorials.
Fittingly, the first event will be a symposium at Somerville College, Oxford, including a room naming in her honour. From there to Liverpool, London and Leeds with public exhibitions and lectures, and an important conference on the refugee question in London at the start of Refugee Week in June. But more than this, we want to use Eleanor’s example to demonstrate the importance of responsible citizenship to today’s generation of young people, and for them to be able to make the connection between her campaigning and issues today. To this end there are plans afoot for an oral history project and projects which engage university and senior school pupils in research projects around current affairs with an historical precedent. We are working in partnership with a number of universities, schools and community organisations and have the support from MPs, members of the House of Lords and the Rathbone family. Hopefully, there will be a permanent memorial at Liverpool University's Greenbank House, which was the Rathbone family home.
All of this requires time, effort and, inevitably, money, so PLEASE, help support the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone campaign with your donation, large or small, and join us at some of the events, posted on the blog. http://www.rememberingeleanorrathbone.wordpress.com