Don’t let MP Eleanor ever be forgotten
Volunteers are celebrating the work of a feminist MP and calling for more support for mothers in Camden.
Friday, 3rd December 2021 — By Isabelle Stanley
CHILD benefits have changed countless lives since they were introduced in 1946, but the woman responsible for their introduction has been almost entirely forgotten, writes Isabelle Stanley.
Starting in the late 1800s, Eleanor Rathbone campaigned for financial independence for mothers and a recognition of their work in the form of a family allowance, now known as child benefits. She was one of the first female MPs and her success helped thousands of people, but now, mothers in Camden say her name and message have been forgotten.
Monica Friel, a 79-year-old living in Camden, remembers her first family allowance payment from the 1960s. She says it was the only thing that enabled her to leave her abusive husband. She said: “I lived with my husband and two children and I worked, but it was an abusive relationship and he was a compulsive gambler and he drank. So the family allowance was a lifeline, my wages would pay for rent but we were struggling.
“I was going into work every day and hoping my bruises didn’t show. My husband had all the money, I had to hide it away or he’d take it. The allowance was what allowed me to move away, it was a lifeline to break free.”
In a time when women were almost entirely financially dependent on men, child benefit was unique, it could be paid to the mother and it was hers to spend as she saw fit.
Before the success of Eleanor Rathbone’s family allowance campaign, Ms Friel said: “You’d be counting the days and looking in your pockets in case you’d left any change, we’d check our coat pockets in the cupboard for coins. You were really living from day to day.”
Last week, Crossroads Women and the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group put on an event in Eleanor Rathbone’s memory. One hundred people attended the online event which launched the joint oral history project and included contributions from 158 women and men whose lives had been changed by her work. The interviews were carried out by a team of volunteers including students from Primrose Hill School for girls.
As well as the event, the organisation has republished Eleanor Rathbone’s 1924 book, The Disinherited Family.
Event organiser Solveig Francis, said: “People were so pleased that mothers were being placed front and centre.” Ms Rathbone’s great niece was in attendance along with Selma James, who campaigned for the family allowance to stay being paid to mothers, not fathers, in 1972. They warned that since Eleanor Rathbone’s work, child benefits have changed significantly. They are no longer automatic or universal, they can’t be paid to asylum seekers and the total worth has been reduced.
Ms Francis said: “It’s not enough, we want mothers and carers to have their rightful recognition and support and not be forced to just bear the brunt of poverty and crises like the pandemic. It’s unacceptable in 2021.”
She added: “Hopefully our event will put Eleanor Rathbone back on the map and we’ll go back to the principles that she fought for and established. This will help us reclaim a crucial part of women’s history. We want it to provoke discussion and highlight the work women do.”
The groups are planning to do more events around Camden in schools and community centres, Ms Francis said: “We’re looking for volunteers to help with the project or want to get in touch with the centre and see what activities are.”
If you’d like to volunteer or find out more information about the project call 020 7482 2496.