Eleanor Rathbone © National Portrait Gallery, London

Katharine Stewart-Murray and Eleanor Rathbone

The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.

Many of the first female MPs worked together cross-party, as many still do, but Katharine Stewart-Murray (1874-1960) and Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946) are a particularly intriguing partnership.

Rathbone, an Independent, came from an influential Liberal family, while Stewart-Murray, a Conservative who married John George Stewart-Murray, Marquess of Tullibardine, in 1899 and later became the Duchess of Atholl, was the daughter of a baronet.

Stewart-Murray campaigned against women’s suffrage and as an MP voted against lowering the voting age for women, but later changed her position on those issues. Rathbone, by contrast, served on the executive of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1896 and was president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship from 1919. She led its lobbying in the 1920s, including on the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which extended voting rights to all women over 21.

The Duchess of Atholl by Hamish Constable Paterson
The Duchess of Atholl by Hamish Constable Paterson (WOA L867). Courtesy of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council

Stewart-Murray was Scotland’s first female MP, elected for Kinross and West Perthshire in December 1923, and she was the first woman to serve as a junior Minister in a Conservative Government, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education (1924-29). Her husband was MP for the same constituency from 1910 until 1917, when he became Duke of Atholl. Stewart-Murray was made a dame for her welfare work in the First World War. She was involved in wide-ranging community work, including on the influential 1912 committee on health services in the Highlands and Islands—the resultant medical scheme is seen as a forerunner of the NHS. She decided to stand for Parliament because she felt it would “help acclimatize Conservative men to women in politics.”

Eleanor Rathbone © National Portrait Gallery, London
Eleanor Florence Rathbone speaking on stage to large crowd at Trafalgar Square, by unknown photographer. Bromide print, 1930s. NPG x35712. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Rathbone was a social reformer and feminist. She volunteered for many years for the Liverpool Central Relief Society, which sought to reduce poverty in the city, and for the Victorian Women’s Settlement, building social services for women and children and establishing a social work training programme—it was there that she met her lifelong companion, Elizabeth Macadam. She was the first woman elected to Liverpool City Council and the first female Justice of the Peace in Lancashire. She was elected in May 1929 as an Independent for the Combined English Universities—a now-abolished constituency whose electorate was made up of the graduates of Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Reading and Sheffield universities.   She was able to gain the seat as an Independent largely because university seats were elected using proportional representation, so were not squeezed out by major parties.

Stewart-Murray and Rathbone established a committee to take evidence on clitoridectomy (female genital mutilation) and campaigned on the issue throughout the 1930s. They first raised it in the House in a debate on colonial policy on 11 December 1929. Some MPs argued that it was too specific a topic for the debate; Rathbone paraphrased their comments—“Women do not count!”—and introduced an amendment that rights should be based on equality for all, without regard to race, colour or sex.

Stewart-Murray and Rathbone became increasingly concerned about the rise of fascism. In 1937, they travelled together to Spain during the civil war to observe events at first hand, and they both spoke out against the Government’s non-interventionist policy—easier for Rathbone as an Independent. In the 1935 election, Stewart-Murray told her electors she would criticise her Government where she felt necessary, and her challenge increased, earning her the nickname “the Red Duchess”. Both MPs opposed the appeasement of Hitler and in 1938 Stewart-Murray resigned her seat in protest and stood as an independent in the ensuing by-election. She was defeated by the Conservative candidate following a robust campaign.

Stewart-Murray and Rathbone shared a common interest in giving women more control over family finances. Stewart-Murray introduced the Illegitimate Children (Scotland) Act 1930 to secure a contribution from fathers, while Rathbone campaigned for the introduction of family allowances, a precursor to child benefit, from 1918. When the allowances were finally introduced in 1945, she was instrumental in forcing the Government to agree to pay the money to the mother, not the father.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team


Duchess of Atholl painting on loan to Parliamentary Art Collection https://www.parliament.uk/about/art-in-parliament/news/2019/february1/new-artwork-on-loan-portrait-of-the-duchess-of-atholl/

Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/collections-the-vote-and-after/equal-franchise-act-1928/

Scottish Parliament Official Report of debate on centenary of 1912 Dewar Commission on health services in Highlands and Islands http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=7430&i=67735

Stewart-Murray raises clitoridectomy in Parliament, with intervention from Eleanor Rathbone 11 December 1929 http://bit.ly/2WSQTXi

Eleanor Florence Rathbone by Unknown photographer. Bromide print, 1930s. NPG x35712 https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw169993/Eleanor-Florence-Rathbone?LinkID=mp03713&role=sit&rNo=1

Rathbone’s maiden speech in Parliament, 22 July 1929 http://bit.ly/2Wq3zFM

Blog by Helen Goodman MP on Eleanor Rathbone https://rememberingeleanorrathbone.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/why-this-fascination-with-an-mp-who-died-70-years-ago-helen-goodman-labour-mp-for-bishop-auckland-writes-about-eleanor-rathbone/

Youtube video posted by UK Parliament, International Women’s Day Lecture of March 2016: “A Most Independent member: Eleanor Rathbone MP (1872-1946)” by Dr Susan Cohen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5XYJ3j2YXc&list=PLj3mInRJqIenLrmofJHlXb6tygFi3JRFm&index=11

Second Reading of the Family Allowances Bill, 8 March 1945 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1945-03-08/debates/321a726f-75da-4f9d-ada4-89430bd4bb02/FamilyAllowancesBill

Consideration of Illegitimate Children (Scotland) Bill, 16 May 1930 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1930/may/16/illegitimate-children-scotland-bill