Eva Gore- Booth: Irish feminist, political activist, poet..
Eva Gore- Booth An Image of such politics by Sonja Tiernan (Manchester University Press) ISBN 978-0-7190-8232-0
Ruth and Eddie Frow were the first people to tell me about Eva Gore- Booth and her companion and fellow activist Esther Roper. They had researched and written about them in the 1980s and felt that, because I was involved in trade union and Irish politics, I should know about two women who had played a significant, if forgotten, role in the history of working class and the Irish on both sides of the Irish sea.
They would be very pleased with Sonja’s book. Not only is it well researched but it is written in an interesting and accessible way. The story of Eva is not just her own history, but also that of her lifetime companion, Esther Roper, and Eva’s sister, Constance Markievicz. Her life was played out in an era that was exciting and a time of massive changes: historically, economically and politically.
Eva was born in Sligo, Ireland on 22 May 1870. Her family were landowning aristocrats and she enjoyed an idyllic life as a child, for her and her sister, spending their time reading, writing poetry and painting, and, like many young women of her class they travelled extensively. However on reaching young adultdood it was a stultifying and limited future that was on offer for her. It was when she was in Italy, in 1896, recuperating from an illness that she met Esther Roper, a meeting that would complete change her life. Esther commented that Eva “..seems to have been haunted by the suffering of the world, and to have had a curious feeling of responsibility for its inequalities and injustices”.
Esther Roper was of Irish descent, born in Chorley Lancashire in 1868. Her parents were working class. “Roper held a unique insight into class structure. She was an educated woman named after an aunt who had worked as a cotton weaver from the age of twelve”. Her parents were missionaries abroad which meant that Esther was one of the first women to get access to an education. By the time she was 20 both her parents were dead and she was responsible for her 13 year old brother. A year later she gained a first class degree at the University of Manchester, and decided to campaign for womens’ equality. In 1893 Esther became the paid secretary of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Esther told Eva of her work and she moved to Manchester in 1897. It must have been a shock to go from the beauty of rural Ireland, and a rich lifestyle, to a smokey, overpopulated city. Ironically there were more Irish people living there than in Sligo. “In the early 1860s 860,000 Irish were living in England and over half of this population were living in Lancashire and Cheshire”.
Manchester was the first industrial city and was also the cradle of the women’s movement. Thousands of women worked in the mills and factories. Esther and Eva decided to campaign to ensure that these women who were affected most by the industial in which world they lived and worked would gain representation and equality. Influenced by ideas from the French Revolution, they sought equality for women in all areas of their lives. Crucially they saw that thousands of women workers were paying taxes but had no political representation. They also believed that it was the organisation of women into trade unions that would lead to them gaining the vote. Their work in the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council led to the creation of many unions specifically for women. By 1904 the labour movement officially supported suffrage for working class women.
Eva shared her love of poetry and drama with working class women in inner city Manchester. Unknown to them she was a talented poet and dramatist and part of the Celtic revival of the early 1900s.
Eva was a pacifist but, being Irish, she was aware of the injustices going on in Ireland. Ireland was still occupied by the British, and from the 1890s to 1920s her sister, Constance Markievicz, was involved in the political and military campaign to gain independence. Eva, whilst opposing physical force politics, supported her sister and her comrades, not just in publicising the barbarity of the British response to the Easter Rising of 1916, but in providing material support to the families of whose husbands had been executed or imprisoned.
During the First World War Eva opposed the war, a stance which was very unpopular to begin with, and worked tirelessly to support conscientious objectors and their families.
Eva and Esther lived during a period of history that saw massive changes in this country. They were active in many of the campaigns that led to the growth of democracy in Britain. For Eva it meant she went against her upbringing and family, but with Esther she found a relationship that allowed her to flourish as a woman and political activist. As Sonja says “Roper was a remarkable character and was clearly the greatest influence on Gore-Booth’s personal, literary and political life.”
Sonja’s book is important in profiling two significant women who understood clearly that class matters. They were at the forefront of not just the women’s campaign for the vote but understood that working class women could be significant figures in their own struggle. Eva and Esther, from their own personal experience, saw that women needed practical support to become political activists. I think there are still lessons today that we can learn from women such as Eva and Esther and that is why this is an important and interesting book for all political activists; women and men. As Sonja says “The story of her (Eva) revolutionary life shows a person devoted to the ideal of a free and independent Ireland and a woman with a deep sense of how class and gender equality can transform lives and legislation”.