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.
LRB 8 July 2004 | PDF Download