Jessica Mann

Hard-Working Girl

Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience

By

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IN AN EXAM’S general paper long ago, I had to write about ‘three admirable women in history’ – a more difficult task than it sounds because in the 1950s the very few females mentioned in textbooks tended to be victims, villains or sacred virgins. Later on, after the explosion in ‘women’s studies’, countless biographies appeared, many of more obscure and less deserving subjects than Eleanor Rathbone, but this seems to be only the second book about her, the other a labour of love written immediately after her death by her friend Baroness Mary Stocks. Yet Rathbone was involved in most of the important events of her time, as one of the earliest women Members of Parliament. She achieved more than the other women politicians of her generation whose names are better remembered, such as the charismatic Pankhursts, the fiery Ellen Wilkinson or the stylish Nancy Astor. Rathbone’s comparative obscurity may have something to do with the fact that no such glamorous adjectives can be used to describe her. She was always a devout feminist, but nothng about her behaviour seemed at all feminine. The Manchester Guardian wrote of the ‘masculine soliditv of her mind’ – which was meant as a compliment. The effective and ever professional Rathbone epitomised a type which is extinct now but which figured prominently in society for about a century: the Bluestocking, a sensible, trenchant, sometimes masculine, rarely elegant, always formidable woman.

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