Esther Roper, Eva Gore-Booth and "Urania"

Submitted by AWL on 1 March, 2021 - 1:21 Author: Jill Mountford
Esther and Eva

Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth had lived and worked together for twenty years when they, along with three others, launched their magazine Urania. It was 1916, the middle of the First World War. Less than three months earlier, 485 people had been killed in the Easter Rising in Dublin and Eva’s sister, Constance Markiewvicz, had escaped execution for her part in the rebellion on the grounds of her sex.

Urania, however, was not an outlet for Esther and Eva’s anti-war activism. Nor was it a magazine targeting the tens of thousands of working-class women they had organised with in the suffrage and trade union movements over the previous two decades. Instead, Urania was magazine seeking to challenge the idea that gender is fixed and to confront the constraints of the gender binary, heterosexual marriage and conformity to gender stereotypes. It promoted the idea that we should strive for an ‘ideal gender’: an androgyny that comprises the best characteristics of both genders.

The women’s movement in the early part of the twentieth century was made up of radical, socialist and bourgeois feminists and was increasingly rich and varied in its perspectives on women’s inequality. Though the mainstream of that movement was focused on the right to vote and challenging inequality in the workplace, there had been consistent discussion in many different feminist publications around the construction of gender and the role it plays in women’s oppression.

Urania, however, stands out as especially radical and pioneering. The magazine celebrated love between women, same sex marriage and cross-dressing. It derided heterosexual marriage and argued that society should “discard sex”, meaning not just gender but the act of heterosexual sex and by implication, all sex, arguing for a spiritual, romantic friendship above ‘animalistic sex’.

In the 1930s it covered sex change stories. When the champion athlete Mary Weston changed sex to become Mark Weston, Urania declared it as ‘Another Extraordinary Triumph’ - a stark contrast to radical feminist attitudes towards transgender athletes today. The article goes on to argue that is is further proof that “sex is an accident” and “no determinant of character and personality.” This is progressive and rare, if not unique, for the time.

The title of the magazine, Urania, is interesting. The word “Uranian” is used by Edward Carpenter, socialist, gay rights campaigner and mystic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to mean “those whose lives and activities are inspired by genuine friendship or love for their own sex.”

Eva, particularly, was increasingly taking on a mystic view of the world by 1916 and, like many feminists of the time, she was flirting with theosophy (she became a fully certificated member of the Theosophical Society in June 1919). Theosophy was a sort of new age religion that talked of many things, including gender fluidity through reincarnation. It promoted celibacy, arguing that love should exist on the spiritual plane rather than the physical, an idea that was increasingly expressed in articles of the magazine.

Annie Besant, a well-known socialist feminist, was one of the first British feminists to get involved with Theosophy in the 1890s. A couple of years later, Charlotte Despard, also a socialist feminist, gave up on Catholicism in exchange for Theosophy. Olive Banks, the feminist historian, says that from a list of well-known feminists in the late-19th and early-20th centuries around ten percent got involved with theosophy at some point.

Radical feminism, theosophy, vegetarianism and animal welfare united the editorial board of Urania. Irene Clyde, Dorothy Cornish and Jessey Wade were the other founder-editors.

Irene is often retrospectively celebrated as a transgender woman though, no doubt because of constraints of the period, she spent her working life as Thomas Baty. Baty was an international lawyer and worked from 1916 as a loyal servant and apologist for the Japanese government. He lived, worked and died in Japan aged 85. While Baty was certainly a trailblazer in challenging the gender binary - as he put it: “insistent differentiation - his radicalism did not translate to a big world view. As Irene Clyde she published a radical feminist utopian novel in 1909, Beatrice the Sixteenth . In the early parts of the story, Irene consciously avoids the use of gendered pronouns, but as the book progresses she increasingly uses the pronoun ‘she’ and celebrates feminine characteristics - the same characteristics that Urania argues are used to oppress women and portray them as inferior.

Between the 1920s and 1960s interest in feminist ideas faded, but this magazine with all its eccentricities kept on going. Producing four issues a year it was distributed to a private, on-request or by-personal-introduction readership of around 200-250 worldwide, including Japan, Nepal and New Zealand. It was, however, subscribed to by four university libraries, two in the UK and two in the US, suggesting a potentially greater readership than those private subscribers. The magazine was free to those interested in challenging gender conformity.

None of the editors were especially energetic evangelists for the new ‘ideal gender’. There was no overall persuasive strategy of how to get from a world where “insistent differentiation” is a relic of the past to a world where we are all liberated from suffocating socially-constructed gender norms. The best on offer was a suggestion that readers get in touch if they are interested in establishing a ‘Modern Abbey’, “where people of our opinions could live in common, careless of the public’s comments.” The ‘Modern Abbey’ sounds like spiritual and possibly celibate mini-utopia. The pronoun ‘she’ is used when describing this paradise.

Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth had a long history of fighting for women’s equality before the launch of Urania. Esther worked to exhaustion engaging working-class women in Manchester in fight for their right to vote. Doing work the Pankhurst’s WSPU would never do, Esther focused her work on working-class women and their trade unions. She was very much a suffragist, not a suffragette, although in the early years she was a mentor to Christabel Pankhurst.

Eva Gore Booth was from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. She was recruited to the fight for women’s suffrage by Esther in 1896. From then on they were barely parted. Esther and Eva worked together in Manchester forming a highly productive working relationship with Sarah Reddish, Sarah Dickenson and Selina Cooper. In 1903, together they founded the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee.

Esther and Eva campaigned for the rights of flower sellers, barmaids, women trapeze artists and pit brow women to work in their trades against sexist legislation set to ban them from their industries. They set up the Barmaids Defence League and won their campaign. An inspiring and rich story to be told next time.

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