March 8, 2018
Vote 100 – The House magazine
A century after the first women gained the right to vote, The House magazine invites MPs to write about the female parliamentarian they most admire from the last 100 years.
John Bercow – Eleanor Rathbone
Eleanor Rathbone was an outstanding backbencher, who never thought twice about voicing uncomfortable truths to the government, writes John Bercow
One of the many fantastic elements of the House’ celebration of Vote 100 was the reminder of all the truly inspirational women who tirelessly and passionately campaigned for universal suffrage. Choosing just one from the many formidable and impressive individuals we commemorated this month, was a monumentally difficult decision.
However, as Speaker, I have made it my mission to be the champion of backbenchers: I try to afford them every opportunity to analyse, to amend and to argue. Better representation for women and BAME people in Parliament is not only important for their sakes, but more diverse perspectives make for better scrutiny which, in turn, yields better legislation. One of the first woman backbenchers, Eleanor Rathbone, is living proof of this theory. Rathbone was elected as MP for the Combined English Universities seat in 1929. A feminist thinker and social reformer, she had witnessed first-hand the plight of impoverished women in her native Liverpool and, following her election, made sure that their voices were heard at the highest level. Publishing ‘The Case for Family Allowances’ in 1940, she argued that the poverty experienced by women and children could be substantially alleviated by a cash payment directly to the mother. William Beveridge was rather taken with the idea and, in 1945 as a direct result of her campaigning, the Family Allowances Bill was passed.
Both inside and outside Parliament she was not just a committed advocate of women’ rights, she was also a passionate advocate for human rights. Clearly an advocate of the view that it is better to act now and ask for permission later, she responded to the government’ refusal to protect the dissident Republicans involved in the Spanish Civil War from fascist reprisal by simply chartering a series of boats herself, saving many lives.
An early voice to raise the alarm about the emerging threat of Nazi Germany, she was an outspoken critic of appeasement, telling the House in 1933 that the NSDAP were “inflicting cruelties and crushing disabilities on large numbers of law-abiding peaceful German citizens, whose only offence is that they belong to a particular race or religion or profess certain political beliefs.” She later became noted for the pressure she exerted on the government to publish details of the horror of the Holocaust.
Eleanor Rathbone used her voice to elevate the voices of others, used whatever influence she had to help those less fortunate, and never thought twice about voicing truths to governments that they would have preferred not to hear. She was an outstanding backbencher and a champion for humanity who should be recognised as a feminist icon.