Book: Eleanor Rathbone and the politics of conscience Author: Susan Pedersen Price: Yale University Press, ?25
Eleanor Rathbone was returned to parliament as the independent member for the combined universities in 1929. Seventeen years later, at her death, she had become one of the outstanding backbenchers of the last 200 years. Her record outstrips that of Richard Cobden and John Bright. They, after all, swam with an incoming tide. She ranks alongside William Wilberforce, but he was a man reforming a man-made world. Eleanor’s greatness should now cease to be one of the best kept secrets of political history thanks to Susan Pedersen’s excellent biography.
A few years after Eleanor’s death in 1946 a biography was published by Mary Stocks. But Pedersen has the advantage of seeing Rathbone’s achievement through 50 years of progress for women and families. What Keynes did for macroeconomics, Rathbone did for families.
By viewing women separately from sexual and emotional attachments, Eleanor was able to see more clearly than others the role economic power played in marriage. Her study of the position of the wives of merchant seamen working away from home for long periods resulted, thanks to her follow-up campaigns, in the wives receiving their husbands’ wages directly. And in her greatest book, The Disinherited Family, published in 1924, Rathbone attacked the view held by most radicals and trade unionists that the wage system should produce a family wage to support two adults and five children. She argued that some payments should go direct to wives and mothers – one result is today’s child benefit.
At Rathbone’s death her lifelong partner Elizabeth Macadam burned almost all of their mutual correspondence. Pedersen says that the wrong conclusion is likely to be inferred from such an action in today’s prurient times. Many unmarried women of Eleanor’s age believed that they could not have both a career and marriage. They therefore consciously sought a life in a man’s world with emotional satisfaction coming from a close friendship with another woman.
But why were the letters burned? One letter survived which shows Eleanor as the junior partner in this emotional relationship. But Macadam rightly believed that she too had been more than a foot soldier in establishing Britain’s welfare state. So, Pedersen speculates, Macadam, the senior partner in the friendship, destroyed the correspondence to prevent her public record being eclipsed by the role she played as Rathbone’s…