‘a pair of oddities’ and the Church of the New Age – Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper

First-wave feminism grew in the midst of highly conservative social and sexual assumptions in wider society.  Same-sex partnerships were therefore still very scandalous and homosexual acts prohibited and liable to imprisonment (as in the highly publicised  case of Oscar Wilde in the late 1890s).  Most Christian feminists thus, publicly at least, steered clear of sexuality issues.  It took second-wave feminism to take these up energetically.  Yet, despite the highly constricted circumstances, same-sex partnerships could nonetheless also be most fruitful in this era…

417VJN4M1ALOne  of the most notable female-female partnerships was that between Eva Gore Booth (1870-1926) and Esther Roper (1868-1938).  Eva, the younger sister of Constance Gore-Booth, later known as the Countess Markievicz,  was an Irish poet and dramatist, and, reacting against her privileged background, a committed suffragist (influencing the younger Christabel Pankhurst), social worker and labour activist.  Esther, in contrast,  was the daughter of a Manchester factory worker, a working woman and a skilled organiser, administrator and fund-raiser.  After meeting in 1896, Eva and Esther formed a formidable team, both politically and personally.   On the public levels, they together supported, and helped organise, the causes of female flower sellers, circus performers, barmaids and coal mine pit girls.  They were prominent pacifists during the First World War, including helping to support the wives and children of imprisoned conscientious objectors. Later they became members of the Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and worked for prison reform.   On the private level, they were once called ‘a pair of oddities’. Constance Markievicz, Eva Gore-Booth’s sister, perhaps put it best however, writing of Esther:

The more one knows her, the more one loves her, and I feel so glad Eva and she were together, and so thankful that her love was with Eva to the end.

For Eva, their love had always been ‘the world’s great song’ and together they founded the radical journal Urania in 1916 (a term invented by the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1864 to describe homosexuality, and popularised in England by Edward Carpenter).  This journal sought to subvert received understandings of sexuality and gender and was undoubtedly a vital focus for networking those of alternative sexualities at that time (see further: Sonja Tiernan in ‘Challenging Presumptions of Homosexuality: Eva Gore Booth, a biographical case study’, successfully reclaiming Eva and Esther’s radical sexuality from earlier biographical silence).

From a spiritual point of view, Eva and Esther were also instrumental in inspiring another new space for women through the Church of the New Age in Manchester.  This was much less orthodox than the Church of the New Ideal, yet, like Labour Churches of the 1890s, was partly a protest against the limitations of traditional religion.   It was run by Constance Andrews, a pacifist, theosophist, and a Minister with a licence to perform weddings.  It thus represented a common linkage in some suffragists circles of feminism, pacifism and mysticism: also associated, as here and with Charlotte Despard, with vegetarianism and a working-class base.  At its heart was the conception of a dawning New Age in which women, released from false ideas, would exercise their spiritual creation with men.  Christ, Constance Andrews taught, had reiterated ‘the mystic universal truth of all ages – the Kingdom.’  Therefore:

If the real meaning of sex were understood and appreciated, men and women would be able to develop the higher part of their nature.  It is because in sex there lies a wonderful meaning, that is has become the most thought of thing in the world..
When St Paul used his intuition, and this brought forth the soul of knowledge within him, he said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond not free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

For Constance Andrews, only the false male ideas of subservience therefore barred women from priesthood and ministry.  The Church of the New Age, in demonstrating female capacity for such roles, was thus intended to open the doors to equality in the spiritual as in every area of life.  How far have we come into a new age?

Prayer

God of Jesus,
who taught us to value people by the quality of their love,
and not by social expectation or the assumed purity of their background,
we give thanks for Eva Gore Booth, Esther Roper, Constance Andrews,
and all who have nurtured deeper understanding of human relationships.
Give us courage to think, feel and organise afresh,
that all who are marginalised may receive support and encouragement
to become all that you desire them to be.
In the name of Jesus, who spent so much time with outsiders, Amen.

n 1896 at the age of 26, Eva Gore-Booth was sent to recover from illness in Italy. There she met a young English woman, Esther Roper.
Eva was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord who owned one of the largest estates in the West of Ireland. In stark contrast, Esther was from working class stock. In order to be with Esther, Eva rejected her aristocratic lifestyle, moving from an opulent mansion in Sligo to a mid-terrace property in smog-bound industrial Manchester.
This talk examines the remarkable thirty-year relationship of Eva and Esther. Once labelled as a pair of oddities, it is now clear that the women were open about their relationship, mixing with an eclectic group of radical gay and lesbian activists. The couple became formidable political advocates, often organising successful and radical campaigns for social justice.
Sonja Tiernan is a Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University and Secretary of the Women’s History Association of Ireland. – See more at: http://www.manchesterbeacon.org/events/view/397/A-pair-of-oddities-in-Manchester-Eva-Gore-Booth-and-Esther-Roper—a-talk-by-Sonja-Tiernan#sthash.6NS6i3vE.dpuf
kk 1896 at the age of 26, Eva Gore-Booth was sent to recover from illness in Italy. There she met a young English woman, Esther Roper.
Eva was the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord who owned one of the largest estates in the West of Ireland. In stark contrast, Esther was from working class stock. In order to be with Esther, Eva rejected her aristocratic lifestyle, moving from an opulent mansion in Sligo to a mid-terrace property in smog-bound industrial Manchester.
This talk examines the remarkable thirty-year relationship of Eva and Esther. Once labelled as a pair of oddities, it is now clear that the women were open about their relationship, mixing with an eclectic group of radical gay and lesbian activists. The couple became formidable political advocates, often organising successful and radical campaigns for social justice.
Sonja Tiernan is a Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University and Secretary of the Women’s History Association of Ireland. – See more at: http://www.manchesterbeacon.org/events/view/397/A-pair-of-oddities-in-Manchester-Eva-Gore-Booth-and-Esther-Roper—a-talk-by-Sonja-Tiernan#sthash.6NS6i3vE.dpuf
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About blessedimp

Anglican priest, theologian and peace, justice & inter-religious activist, seeking wholeness in a fragmented world, transgender female
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1 Response to ‘a pair of oddities’ and the Church of the New Age – Eva Gore Booth and Esther Roper

  1. Nicola Slee says:

    In the week leading up to the first same-sex marriages in the UK, this is an inspiring and hope-filled account of two courageous first wave feminist Christian lesbians – thank you!

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