Papers of Eleanor Rathbone

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 7ELR
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      2 A boxes

Scope and Content

The archive consists of correspondence and papers relating to Rathbone's work raising the status of women in India. Her activities covered the effort to obtain the franchise for Indian women, their legal and social status, their education and especially their efforts to make illegal the practice of child marriage. Her correspondents include some of the key women activists in India in the 1920s and 1930s such as Begum Jehan Ara Shah Nawaz (1896-1976) the first woman member of the All-India Muslim League Council, and B Muthulakshmi Reddi (1886-1968) the first Indian woman doctor.

Administrative / Biographical History

See the biography for Rathbone; Eleanor Florence (1872-1946); social reformer

Eleanor Florence Rathbone (1872-1946) was born in 1872, the daughter of the Liberal MP for Liverpool William S Rathbone and his second wife Emily Lyle. The young woman was educated first at Kensington High School, London and then Somerville College, Oxford. After graduating, she returned to Liverpool as a worker for the local Central Relief Centre where she was able to examine social and industrial conditions in the area. This ultimately resulted in the publication of a report on the results of a special inquiry into the conditions of labour at the Liverpool Docks in 1903. When women became eligible to stand for election she became the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council and represented the Granby Ward as an independent councillor from 1909-1934. During that time she wrote an number of articles and papers on social questions including 'How The Casual Labourer Lives; A Report of The Liverpool Joint Research Committee on the Domestic Condition and Expenditure of Families of Certain Liverpool Labourers' (1909). She also published 'Women's Need of the Vote; a Practical Illustration' in 1911 and a series of articles for 'Common Cause' including 'The Problem of Women's Wages' (1911) and 'Widows under the Poor Law (1913) which argued for state funded pensions for widows. As these showed, her work on social issues was constantly bound up with the question of women's social and political status. In 1898 she had become the secretary of the Liverpool Society for Women's Suffrage and later chair of the West Lancashire, West Cheshire and North West Wales Federation. Additionally, she became a member of the executive committee of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies from 1900. However, in 1913, the NUWSS launched the Election Fighting Fund policy, which promised support to any party officially supporting suffrage in an election where the candidate was challenging an anti-suffrage Liberal, the effect was to effectively support the Labour Party. Rathbone was opposed to this measure and resigned from the executive committee in 1914. However, she did support the war work done by the group between 1914 and 1918, taking over the Liverpool branch of the Soldiers and Sailors Family Association, acting as an administrative arm of the War Office and dealing with the payment of separation allowances to wives. Influenced by this, she helped form the Family Endowment Committee in 1918, which campaigned for women to be paid an allowance to alleviate their economic dependence on husbands. When the NUWSS broadened its aims after the grant of the vote to women over thirty and changed its name to the National Union of Societies of Equal Citizenship, Rathbone was elected the new organisation's first president (1919-1929). However, at this time there was no consensus within the movement regarding the appropriate response to new 'protective' legislation, which limited only women's working hours with the aim of 'protecting' them against industrial exploitation. An ideological split occurred at this time between those in NUSEC who, on the one hand, supported Rathbone and ideas such as an 'Endowment of Motherhood' which was intended to give women their financial independence and those, on the other, who adopted a more strictly equalist position. A number of members broke away to form equalist organisations such as the Open Door Council and the Six Point Group. However, Rathbone remained at the head of NUSEC and her views, outlined in works such as 'Utopia Calling: A Plea for Family Allowances' (1920) and shown in her work for the Children's Minimum (later Nutrition) Council, would go on to have an impact on the eventual form of the welfare state set up after the Second World War. In 1922 she stood for election as an independent candidate for East Toxteth division Liverpool but was defeated. Instead it was as an independent candidate for the Combined English Universities' seat that Rathbone was finally elected to parliament in 1929, a post she held until her death in 1946. In the House of Commons, she remained active in working for equal treatment for women in public and private life. She strongly opposed changes to the Unemployment Insurance Act that appeared to disadvantage women as well as campaigning against the Nationality of Married Women Act. Additionally, she was almost alone in the Commons in that decade in denouncing the potential danger from Germany and the Nazi Party after 1933. Rathbone was also deeply involved in the campaign for Indian women's suffrage throughout her parliamentary career; this included an interest in their legal and social status, their education and especially efforts to make illegal the practice of child marriage. Rathbone obtained an MA and LLD (Doctor of Laws) at Liverpool as well as an Honorary MA at Durham and an Honorary DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) at Oxford, she was also a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Rathbone remained an MP until her sudden death on 2 Jan 1946.


The correspondence and papers listed below had been sorted into groups mainly according to the correspondent, but in a few cases, according to subject. As the original arrangement is unknown, this grouping has been retained, and the files placed in chronological order.

Access Information

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

Acquisition Information

Unknown. Deposited before the material was listed in 1973. [Fawcett Library Accession Registers to be checked]

Other Finding Aids

Fawcett Library Catalogue.

Related Material

Liverpool University: Special Collections and Archives holds 'Rathbone papers' (correspondence and papers );

London University: London School of Economics Library, Archives Division holds 1924-1930: correspondence with William Beveridge Reference COLL MISC 9;

British Library, Manuscript Collections holds 1915-44: correspondence with Lord Cecil, Reference Add MS 51141;

Cambridge University: Churchill Archives Centre 1944-46: correspondence with AV Hill, Reference AVHL;

National Archives of Scotland 1932-40: correspondence with Lord Lothian, Reference GD40;

Manchester University: John Rylands Library, 1929-45: letters to the Manchester Guardian, Reference Guardian archives;

Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, 1931-41: correspondence with Gilbert Murray, Reference MSS Gilbert Murray;

British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (previously Oriental and India Office Library) 1928-30: correspondence with John Simon, Reference MSS Eur F 77;

British Library, Manuscript Collections 1926-42: correspondence with the Society of Authors, Reference Add MS 56786.

Corporate Names

Geographical Names