Most commonly known as the daughter of Karl, Eleanor Marx was an impressive figure in her own right. Raised in a household that unsurprisingly instilled a sense of social responsibility in its children, she nevertheless took her father’s towering legacy and diverted it in her own, more practical direction.
Born in 1855 in London, Eleanor grew up in an era where even the daughter of a renowned intellectual like Marx possessed no right to formal education or to the vote, but she refused to let these limitations stand in the way of the socialist struggle to which she devoted her life. Yet she did not just follow the footsteps of her father: she linked the struggle of the working class with the plight of her gender - while women were paid lower wages, they were used to undercut male workers and cement the power of employers - and was pivotal in organising key women’s strikes including the famous match girls’ and Gasworkers’ strikes. (The perennial gender pay gap that still exists today makes this campaign seem depressingly current).
Eleanor was a writer and multi-linguist, travelling across Europe and to America to investigate employment conditions and spur on the workers’ movement, admirable now but astounding for an unmarried woman of the period.
Yet if Eleanor Marx is an example of the intellectual force and drive possessed by the female sex and of what women can achieve in the political sphere against the odds, she is also a cautionary example of the power relations and violence women so often face in the personal sphere. Eleanor was found dead at the age of 43, poisoned by prussic acid. Suspicion fell on her long-term on-off partner Edward Aveling who had purchased both chloroform and prussic acid on the morning of her death, and had left the house later that morning, returning only when Eleanor had been dead for hours. An inquest was held at which Aveling blamed Eleanor’s depression and was not charged, leaving with the remainder of the inheritance Eleanor had received from Engels. Whether her death was suicide or something more sinister, Eleanor the person fell victim to a manipulative and possibly abusive partner, and her legacy to stereotypes about female mental weakness and lack of resilience.
But the sad circumstances of her passing should not overshadow the achievements of this early activist and intellectual, who built on a family heritage but was not dominated by it; who created her own socialist and feminist inheritance.
To read more about the life and work of Eleanor Marx, please see her biography, ‘Eleanor Marx: A Life’ by Rachel Holmes - which inspired this Page 3.