Eleanor Marx was so much more than just ‘Karl Marx’s daughter’. Born in London in 1855, she lived an extraordinarily full life before it was cut tragically short when she was just 43. Here are just a few reasons why we should salute Eleanor Marx.
She was a child prodigy
Today we’d probably call Eleanor – or Tussy as she was affectionately known by her family – a child genius. She was fluent in several languages and interested in politics from a very young age. And no wonder: the story goes that little Tussy played at her father’s feet while he wrote ‘Das Kapital’ – one of the most politically influential works in history.
She spoke up for strikers and captivated crowds
During the 1889 dockers’ strike, Eleanor spoke to a 100,000 strong crowd in Hyde Park about oppression and injustice. Her speech was met with loud cheers. On May Day 1890 she was back in Hyde Park speaking at a massive demonstration for an eight-hour working day. She ended her rousing speech by quoting Shelley: ‘Ye are many – they are few.’ She became a wildly popular speaker and was in such demand that after 40 speeches in three months, she claimed her throat was too sore to continue. But there was no stopping Eleanor: she was back on the platform within weeks.
She stood up for working women
By founding the first ever women’s branch of the gas workers’ union, Eleanor improved the lives of thousands of ‘unskilled’ women workers. And it wasn’t just gas workers who benefited from her skills and dedication. At the Crosse & Blackwell factory, female onion skinners did hazardous work for pitiful pay. Eleanor organised 400 of them into a union. They demanded an eight-hour day, better pay and improved working conditions and then went on strike. Within a week, Crosse and Blackwell was on its knees. Victory for the onion skinners!
She was the trade union movement’s most beloved teacher
Trade union hero Will Thorne had been working in a factory aged six and had missed out on school. When he became leader of the gas workers’ union, he struggled with the office work. Eleanor came to his rescue. She helped Will write the union’s rules and constitution, do accounts and produce reports for 30,000 members. Later Will wrote that Eleanor ‘helped me more than anyone else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and my general knowledge.’ She had a huge impact on Will’s ability to do his job but she never mentioned it to anyone.
In 1898, Eleanor took her own life. At her funeral her friend Will, also a famously strong orator, broke down in tears during his speech. The world had lost a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman.