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Eleanor Florence Rathbone

1872-1946
First woman MP and Social Reformer

(May 12, 1872 – January 2, 1946) was a Member of Parliament and long-term campaigner for women's rights. She was a member of the noted Rathbone family of Liverpool.

Rathbone was the daughter of the social reformer William Rathbone VI and his second wife, Emily Lyle. Her family encouraged her to concentrate to social issues. Rathbone went to Kensington High School, London, and later studied in Somerville College, Oxford, over the protestations of her mother. After graduation, she worked alongside her father to investigate social and industrial conditions in Liverpool until William Rathbone died in 1902. They also opposed the Second Boer War. In 1903 Rathbone published their Report on the results of a Special Inquiry into the conditions of Labour at the Liverpool Docks.

Rathbone was elected as an independent member of Liverpool City Council in 1909 for the seat of Granby Ward, a position she maintained until 1934. The same year she published her first book How the Casual Labourer Lives. She also wrote a series of articles to a suffragist magazine The Common Cause. In 1913 she founded the Liverpool Women Citizen's Association to promote women's involvement in political affairs. At the outbreak of the World War I, Rathbone organized the Town Hall Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Organization to support wives and dependents of soldiers.

From 1918 onwards, Rathbone was arguing for a system of family allowances paid directly to mothers. She also opposed violent repression of rebellion in Ireland. She was instrumental in negotiating the terms of women's inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. In 1919, when Millicent Fawcett retired, Rathbone took over the presidency of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (the renamed NUWSS). She also campaigned for women's rights in India. In 1924 in the Disinherited Family, she argued that economic dependence of women was based on the practice of supporting variably-sized families with wages that were paid to men, regardless of whether the men had families or not. Later she exposed insurance regulations that reduced married women's access to unemployment benefits and health insurance.

In 1929 Rathbone entered parliament as an independent MP for the Combined English Universities. One of her first speeches was about clitoridectomy in Kenya. During the Depression, she campaigned for cheap milk and better benefits for the children of the unemployed. In 1931 she helped to organize the defeat of a proposal to abolish the university seats in the parliament and won re-election in 1935.

Rathbone realized the nature of Nazi Germany and in the 1930s joined the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council to support human rights. In 1936 she began to warn about a Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia. She became an outspoken critic of appeasement in Parliament. She denounced British complacency in Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Italian conquest of Abyssinia and about the Spanish Civil War. Once she tried to hire a ship to run the blockade of Spain and remove Republicans at risk from reprisals. Her determination was such that junior ministers and civil servants of the Foreign Office would reputedly duck behind pillars when they saw her coming. She supported the points of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee but earned the enmity of Neville Chamberlain.

On September 30, 1938, Rathbone denounced the just-publicized Munich Accords. She pressured the parliament to aid the Czechs and grant entry for dissident Germans, Austrians and Jews. In 1939 she set up a Parliamentary Committee for Refugees to take up individual cases from Spain, Czechoslovakia and Germany. During World War II she regularly chastised Osbert Peake, undersecretary at the Home Office, and in 1942 pressured the government to publicize the evidence of Holocaust.

In 1945, the year before her death, she saw the Family Allowances Act pass into law.