Eleanor was the daughter of William Rathbone VI of Greenbank, Liverpool and his second wife Emily Lyle. Her father was an outstanding philanthropist dedicated to social reform, among other achievements establishing a District Nurse system in Liverpool which was adopted nationwide, and Eleanor was strongly influenced by the dedication of her father to help those less fortunate.
Eleanor was educated at Kensington High School, London and later attended Somerville College, Oxford were she studied Litterae Humaniores. Here she was known as the "Philosopher" due to her concern with the fundamental problems of human life. It was here that she met and became friends with Hilda Oakeley, Margery Fry and Barbara Bradbury and developed a passion for debating.
On leaving Somerville she investigated Social and Industrial Conditions within Liverpool. When women became eligible to stand for election she became the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council and served the Granby Ward as an Independent Councillor between 1909-1934.
In 1929 she was elected as Independent M.P. for the Combined Universities, and continued in this position until the year before her death, becoming associated with many campaigns for social reform. During her career she was a member of various committees. She was a particularly vociferous campaigner for issues that directly effected women.
One of the causes most often associated with Eleanor Rathbone was the campaign to introduce Family Allowances, challenging a system which allowed single men the same amount of benefit as a family of seven, and attempting to offer mothers greater ability and freedom to ensure higher living standards for their children. She met with much opposition, but finally found success with the passing of the Family Allowance Act in the year before her death
Eleanor's concern over the living standards of the nation's children motivated her ardent campaign work for the Children's Minimum (later Nutrition) Council which advocated a minimum standard for living, particularly concerning levels of nutrition. Through parliamentary speeches Eleanor illustrated that the only long-term solution was the introduction of Family Allowances.
She was acknowledged as being one of the first to realise the potential danger from Germany and the Nazi Party during the early 1930's. She joined the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council to champion human rights. She was instrumental in petitioning the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to prevent the exportation of aero-engines or other parts of aircraft liable to be converted to military use.
Eleanor was also closely associated with the fight for equal citizenship for women; the Liverpool Women's Suffrage Society was established largely through her efforts in 1909; she later founded the first Women's Association in Liverpool in 1913 to promote women's involvement in political affairs, partly through education in political and civil questions.