Eleanor joined the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society (LWSS) in 1896 ( founded 1894), the year she returned to Liverpool having completed her degree at Somerville College, Oxford. She became a member of the National Executive of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) when it was founded in 1897. As constitutionalists the NUWSS were at odds with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and Eleanor was vociferous in her Liverpool speeches, denouncing their militant tactics, which she considered counterproductive. The WSPU became more ambitious and increasingly militant by 1907 and Eleanor seized the opportunity to breathe new life into the Liverpool organisation, attracting younger women students and others active in the settlement movement. Even though the members were still mostly middle-class, Eleanor succeeded in shifting the focus out of the domestic sphere and into the public domain with meetings in community spaces and outdoors, even taking to a soap box. Members of the LWSS intervened at local elections, notably at the Kirkdale by-election in 1910, a campaign which Eleanor masterminded. She was one of seven women who campaigned for Alexander Cameron, the local socialist candidate, a great supporter of women’s suffrage, but despite their support, he failed to secure the seat.
The rift that developed between Eleanor and some of her NUWSS colleagues – who were also her friends – was, in the narrowest sense, and according to Susan Pedersen, ‘a conflict about the Union’s growing alliance with the Labour Party’ which Eleanor considered not only politically inexpedient, but in direct opposition to the Union’s tradition policy of being party neutral. By early 1914, a serious internal crisis ensued in the NUWSS, and ultimately the rift led to the resignation of Eleanor and three other Executive members in the April. Millicent Fawcett regretted Eleanor’s departure, but not the loss of the other three, and would have had her back sooner, but Eleanor would not allow herself to be singled out from amongst the dissenters. It was 1915 before she before she was able to rebuild her relationship with Mrs Fawcett. Eleanor became President of the NUWSS in 1919, following Mrs Fawcett‘s post-war resignation, defeating Mrs H.A.L.Fisher (Lettie Ilbert ). The National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, as it became known, was now the main hope for the ‘new feminism’ and the HQ of the movement, (the WSPU was now defunct) and had Eleanor, a controversial leader, at the helm for the next ten years.’