Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Beatrice Webb

Episode Summary

Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) was a scholar and economist who helped found the London School of Economics.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today we’re talking about a social reformer who held strong to her beliefs, even when they were unpopular. She helped to create a welfare system that lasted for decades after her death. Meet Beatrice Webb.

Beatrice Potter was born on January 22, 1858 in Standish, England. She had politics in her blood; her grandfather was a Liberal Party member who played a direct role in the Reform Act of 1832. That was a revolutionary set of changes that gave the people more parliamentary representation. Beatrice was well-read from an early age in the works of the leading British sociologists and philosophers of her time. 

Beatrice’s mother passed away in 1882. Later that year, she started a romance with the radical politician Joseph Chamberlain. The pair never married. Beatrice valued her independence and often intellectually clashed with Chamberlain over the course of their 4 year relationship. After that, the partnership fell apart.

Beatrice then started the work that would inform her later career choices. First, she took over her older sister’s position as a voluntary rent collector at a model dwellings company, a business that sought to improve housing conditions for the working class. Then, she helped her cousin conduct a massive survey of London’s slums, which would eventually become a 17-volume study.

Beatrice continued her research, all the while shaping her political and economic theories. She made major contributions to the cooperative movement, which suggested that people should organize behind one economic goal. In 1891, Beatrice published “The Cooperative Movement in Great Britain”. In it, she argued for what she called “cooperative federalism,” in an effort to usher in a democratic socialist system. 

In 1892, Beatrice’s father died. Beatrice’s inheritance allowed her to more deeply pursue her research. She married Sidney Webb -- a man who she had hired years earlier to help her with research -- and their relationship lasted the rest of their lives. In stark contrast to her earlier romance, Beatrice wrote that every passing year deepened the love she and Sidney shared.

The relationship between Sidney and Beatrice was as much a research and political partnership as it was a romantic coupling. The duo joined the Fabian Society, an organization dedicated to non-radically bringing about democratic socialism. With the support of that organization, Beatrice and her husband published political pamphlets including, “The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy.”

When the Fabian Society received an unexpected windfall donation, they used it to found the London School of Economics and Political Science. Beatrice herself was among the original founders.

In 1902, Beatrice became a vegetarian for health reasons -- but she took that idea and ran with it. She started an intellectual salon for vegetarians, and became vice president of the National Food Reform Association!

Around that same time, Beatrice wrote one of her most influential works. For several years, she had been a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress, which was tasked with writing a report about state welfare. Though the commission was led by people appointed by a conservative government, Beatrice was in charge of writing the dissenting minority report. In her report, Beatrice conceived a welfare system that would “secure a national minimum of civilised life ... open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes.”

This system, imagined in 1909, would become the basis for the United Kingdom’s welfare system for decades.

Beatrice’s work didn’t stop there. She and her husband went on to found the New Statesman, a weekly political publication that featured the most prominent philosophers, economists, and politicians of the time.

The pair collaborated on many pieces of writing and Beatrice campaigned in support of her husband in 1922, helping him win a parliamentary seat.

In 1932, Beatrice was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy. 

When Beatrice and Sidney were in their 70’s, they pursued writing what would become their most controversial work. They spent two months researching in the Soviet Union. Beatrice had previously criticized the cruelty of Russian communism, as well as Italian Fascism. But three years after spending time there, the couple wrote a book entitled, “Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?” In this work, Sidney and Beatrice seem to turn away from  their preference for non-radical reforms.

The book drew criticism from historians and economists alike -- even some of their own family members took opposing stances. 

Beatrice passed away in 1943, before the Welfare State was officially established. But her influence lived on and the system she imagined remained the primary basis for British law until the 1980’s. 

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday to hear the story of another beautiful mind -- a legendary, prolific author and thinker.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you on Monday!