Eleanor Rathbone was born in London on 12th May 1872. Her father, William Rathbone, a prosperous shipowner, came from a Quaker and Unitarian background. A supporter of the Liberal Party, William Rathbone served in the House of Commons from 1869 to 1895.
Rathbone was educated at home by a governess and private tutors before entering Somerville College, Oxford, in 1893. At university Rathbone became involved in the struggle to obtain women the vote and eventually became a leading figure in the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
After leaving university with a degree in philosophy, Rathbone became secretary of the Women's Industrial Council in Liverpool and was very involved in the organization's campaign against low pay and bad working conditions. In 1909 she became the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council and over the next few years argued for improved housing in the city.
Rathbone was elected to the executive committee of the NUWSS and led the opposition to the decision in 1912 to advise all members to campaign for the Labour Party in the general election. The following year she published her first book, The Condition of Widows under the Poor Law (1913).
During the First World War Rathbone established a committee to look into poverty in Britain. Members included H. N. Brailsford, Maude Royden, Kathleen Courtney, Emile Burns and Mary Stocks. In 1917 the Family Endowment Committee published Equal Pay and the Family. A Proposal for the National Endowment of Motherhood. In the pamphlet Rathbone and her colleagues argued for the introduction of family allowances.
On the resignation of Millicent Fawcett in 1919, Rathbone became president of the NUWSS. She continued to campaign for social reform and in 1925 published her important book, The Disinherited Family. The following year the introduction of family allowances became a policy of the Independent Labour Party. However, the idea was rejected by the three major political parties.
In 1929 Rathbone was elected to the House of Commons as the Independent Member for the Combined British Universities. Over the next few years she campaigned against female circumcision in Africa, child marriage in India and forced marriage in Palestine. This included the publication of the book, Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur (1934).
Rathbone also took a keen interest in foreign policy and was a strong opponent of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. In April 1937, Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and the Duchess of Atholl travelled to Spain on a fact-finding mission. The party visited Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia and observed the havoc being caused by the Luftwaffe.
In May 1937 Rathbone joined with Charlotte Haldane, Duchess of Atholl, Ellen Wilkinson and J. B. Priestley to establish the Dependents Aid Committee, an organization which raised money for the families of men who were members of the International Brigades. Later she helped establish the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief.
Rathbone grew increasingly concerned about Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. She totally opposed the British government's policy of appeasement and instead called for an alliance with the Soviet Union. These views were expressed in her book, War Can Be Averted (1937) and were officially supported by Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, David Lloyd George, Hugh Dalton and Margery Corbett-Ashby.
During the Second World War Rathbone continued to campaign for family allowances and in 1940 published The Case for Family Allowances. This became the policy of the Labour Party and her family allowances system was introduced in 1945. However, Rathbone was furious when she discovered that the allowance was to be paid to the father rather than the mother. This negated the feminist implications of the measure and she threatened to vote against the Bill.
Eleanor Rathbone died of a heart-attack on 2nd January 1946.