CLIO TALKS BACK: Eleanor Rathbone and the Endowment of Motherhood in Britain

From 1908 on Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946) served on the Liverpool City Council in England and later became one of the first women to be elected to the British Parliament. Throughout her life she concerned herself with the plight of the disadvantaged – be they British children, Indian women, African victims of female circumcision rites, or refugees from Nazi Germany. She clearly understood how dependent women had become in British society as well as elsewhere.

Rathbone opposed the idea of a “family wage” paid to employed men, advocating instead a plan for family allowances whereby the husband’s employer, or in case of his unemployment, the state, would pay a separate allowance for each child directly to his wife. By this means she hoped to enhance the oppressed and narrow lives of working-class wives and mothers. The notion that wives and children were necessarily men’s dependents seemed, to her, demeaning.

Eleanor Rathbone viewed this economic approach to empowering mothers as part of a “New Feminism,” by which she meant dealing with women’s needs in women’s terms. In 1924 she elaborated her views in a widely-read book, The Disinherited Family, in which she argued that the time had come to focus on the problems of women in the family. Not surprisingly, it was her controversial insistence that the family allowance be paid to the wife/mother that stirred up the most resistance.

Opponents of the plan included Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Rathbone’s predecessor as head of the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies. Fawcett, herself an economic thinker, feared that such payments to the wife and mother would undermine the sense of responsibility of men – husbands and fathers – by degrading their hallowed role as economic providers. This, she feared, would destroy rather than stabilize the family. Eleanor Rathbone strongly disagreed.

In 1925 Rathbone responded to Fawcett’s concerns by rolling out a visionary agenda in which she suggested that merely clearing away the old laws or seeking equal pay for equal work did not go far enough. Finally the time had some, she argued, to “demand what we want for women, not because it is what men have got, but because it is what women need to fulfil the potentialities of their own natures and to adjust themselves to the circumstances of their own lives.” This, she claimed, was the agenda of the “New Feminism.”

Rathbone’s plan was ultimately incorporated into a “Family Endowment Act” by the British Labour Government in 1945, immediately after the end of the Second World War.

Clio wants to know what you think about the notion of employer-allocated or state-allocated family allowances as a means of empowering mothers. Is this still an attractive solution for women today? Your comments are, of course, welcome.


1. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, vol. 2 (1880-1950), documents 88-91: Family Endowment and the “New Feminism.”
2. Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (Yale University Press).