Saturday 13 March 2010

Women’s History Month: Eglantyne Jebb

Last night the paperback of my biography of Eglantyne Jebb was launched at the wonderful Women’s Library in London, as part of their on-going Wise Words Book Fest. The book’s publication was deliberately timed to coincide with Mothering Sunday because Eglantyne changed the way the whole world both regards and treats its children when she not only launched Save the Children at the end of the First World War in 1919, but went on to write the pioneering statement of children’s rights that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history.

Nevertheless I had to laugh at this Mothers’ Day schedule, because one of the many things that I love about Eglantyne was that she never had children of her own and was definitely not ‘the mothering kind’. In fact she once referred to children as ‘the little wretches’, and even the year she founded Save the Children, she wrote to her close friend Margaret Keynes, the younger sister of the economist, with typical dry humour; ‘I suppose it is a judgement on me for not caring about children that I am made to talk, all day long, about the universal love of humanity towards them’.

Perhaps this is partly why Eglantyne’s wonderful name is so little known today. Eglantyne spent her life defying conventions. As a young woman she considered leaving, and then bombing, her Oxford college. She consistently defied fashionable society in both dress and behaviour. She left the Church for her own very personal brand of spiritual Christianity. And she very publicly broke the law. And Eglantyne seems to have continued this independent trend ever since, eluding all the obvious academic and biographical categories by being neither a ‘great man’ of the type so much favoured by David Starkey and his predecessors, nor a maternal woman, and yet still a woman who devoted her life to children rather than some more obviously feminist cause such as suffrage.

While writing the book it took me some time to get my head around this apparent paradox at the centre of Eglantyne’s being; a children’s champion who was not fond of children. But Eglantyne was simply a great humanitarian. She recognised that children suffer in specific ways from starvation and may not be able to make up the lost ground both physiologically and psychologically as well as adults; that children are the world’s future citizens in whose hands lie both the opportunity and responsibility for creating a peaceful and more equitable society; and also that children make a good PR and fundraising hook – and then she just got on with it – brilliantly. Passionate but not sentimental, she moved from spiritualism in Shropshire to espionage in the war-torn Balkans, from illicit romance in Cambridge to public arrest in Trafalgar Square, on the way winning over the Pope and the miners, the aristocracy of Europe and the Bolshevik government, the crown prosecutor at her London trial and the fledgling League of Nations in Geneva.

Eglantyne has been incredibly neglected for someone whose achievements are so influential, and I have a sneaky feeling that if a man had penned the forerunner of the most widely accepted UN Convention in history we would all know his name very well. But at least she is getting some attention now, and perhaps it is not so ironic that the book is being promoted around Mothers’ Day. Mothers do not have a monopoly on concern about children’s welfare but most have a strong interest, and while Eglantyne chose not to have children herself – preferring to help the next generation from a strategic distance – she recognised and applauded the diversity of women’s social contributions, simply believing, she said, that ’to succeed in life, you must give life’ – in whichever way you choose.

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