Associated Prigs

R.W. Johnson

  • Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience by Susan Pedersen
    Yale, 469 pp, £25.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 300 10245 3

When Susan Pedersen writes that Eleanor Rathbone was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century she might have added that another Somerville alumna, Margaret Thatcher, clearly earned that title in the century’s second half. No one can doubt the extent to which Thatcher stamped herself on the 1980s, but the effect of reading this fine biography is to make one wonder, not just why Rathbone is now forgotten but whether she wasn’t Thatcher’s superior in everything but achieving power. As you look back at the causes Rathbone took up – votes for women, family allowances, feminism, family planning, anti-Nazism (immediately Hitler came to power), the plight of colonial women, Jewish refugees, anti-appeasement, the Spanish Republic, wartime internees, the Polish officers deported to the USSR (at a time when other left-wingers were loath to support such an ‘anti-Communist’ cause), Keynesian economics before it was fashionable, German civilians at the war’s end – you really can’t fault her. She was so wonderfully clear-sighted that it’s not even surprising to find her warning of the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet pact two years before the event.

Since all the positions she took, no matter how controversial at the time, have been thoroughly vindicated by history, reading about Rathbone makes you feel that her moral and political instincts were those of a contemporary. Yet she belongs to a long vanished world. The daughter of a prosperous Quaker (later Unitarian) merchant family in Liverpool, she grew up in an atmosphere of almost impossible high-mindedness. Her father, William, seeing wealth as a threat to virtue, was filled with anxiety lest his building up of the family fortune might constitute a moral danger to his children. Believing that payment of a tithe was too little, he encouraged the notion that one should give away everything beyond what was strictly necessary to leading a modest existence. His first wife, Lucretia, was such a miracle of self-abnegation and anxious piety that had she not died from consumption she would surely have perished from excessive virtue. William was saved from this life of hair-shirtedness by Emily, his more worldly and practical second wife (and Eleanor’s mother) who, seeing that amassing yet more money seemed to make William unhappy, encouraged him to become a Gladstonian Liberal MP instead.

Eleanor, even in her father’s eyes, was ‘an awful little prig, always asking whether to do something would not be good for her’, while her mother observed that, with her big serious eyes, she ‘never was young from the time she was born’. In adult life people generally found her formidable: direct, interested only in the great issues, endlessly earnest, with no small talk, and more intelligent and better educated than almost everyone she met. This last she owed in large measure to Somerville, where she met her real peers, women like Margery Fry and Lettice Ilbert (later Mrs H.A.L. Fisher), engaged in endless idealistic debates in their discussion group, the APs (Associated Prigs), and worked at her studies in a way few men of the time did.

One of the best things in this book is its painstaking evocation of that first feminist generation. By the 1890s, mothers knew that higher education for women was ‘an intellectual smallpox’, a disfigurement which would remove its recipients from the marriage market – which is to say, from life. The Cambridge colleges of Newnham and Girton were particularly reviled: ‘if you’re naughty, you’ll have to go to Girton,’ Beatrice Webb’s sister warned her daughters. And, indeed, half the women who went to them did remain single, whether through male revulsion at the idea of an educated mate or their own unwillingness to accept the constraints of traditional marriage. What is striking is that this was an outcome many of these women welcomed. Education and emancipation went hand in hand and if that meant you had to give up men and babies, or give up sex altogether, so be it. They accepted that their only true peers, the people they would want to spend their lives with, were educated spinsters like themselves. These were not the daughters of the Great War, sadly acknowledging that after Flanders there wouldn’t be enough men to go round: they were, altogether more powerfully, the daughters of the Naughty Nineties, ready to give up everything for the life of the mind and sexual equality.

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