Eleanor Rathbone

(1872-1946) – Politician and social reformer

Eleanor Rathbone was born into a noted Liverpool family of social activists. She only received formal schooling for a year before coming to Somerville in 1893 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics). In 1897, Rathbone became the Honorary Secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society Executive and in 1919, when Milicent Fawcett retired, Rathbone took over the presidency of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (previously the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies).

Rathbone was the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council, representing Granby ward from 1909 to 1934. In 1922, she stood as an Independent at Liverpool East Toxteth and was defeated by the sitting Unionist MP. She was elected to Parliament as an Independent in 1929 representing the Combined English Universities (and becoming the first in a long line of Somervillians to enter Parliament) and remained an MP until her death.

She campaigned for Family Allowances (introduced in 1945, and later called Child Benefit), ensuring in particular that they were paid directly to women. Rathbone was also the Founding Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Refugees, which she established following the Munich settlement and Kristallnacht. The committee became the vehicle for challenging officials and ministers to ‘break with the fatal policy’ of quotas and voluntary financial support in order to welcome Jewish and political refugees from Czechoslovakia, and was instrumental in moving the British government to welcome Jewish and political refugees from Czechoslovakia, and subsequently all of Nazi occupied Europe. Among these was the German Jewish Classicist Lotte Labowsky, who studied at Somerville and latterly became a Fellow of the College. In 1942, Rathbone also put pressure on the government to publicise evidence of the Holocaust.

Did you know? Eleanor Rathbone was one of the founding members of a Somerville student society which called itself ‘The Associated Prigs’. It met on Sunday evenings for ‘collective talk on social subjects’, covering topics including factory legislation and how criminals should be punished.

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