What connects Winston Churchill, women’s trades unions, Irish independence, an early 20th century magazine opposing traditional gender concepts and a suffrage petition long enough to carpet a railway platform?
The answer is Esther Roper: suffragist, labour organiser and pioneering writer on gender and sexuality.
Lancashire-born Roper saw votes for women as part of a wider campaign: a step on the road to improved pay and working conditions. By contrast, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) increasingly became a London-centric, single-issue organisation, careful not to upset its upper-middle class supporters.
When Owens College (now Manchester University) awarded her a BA in 1891, Roper became probably the first woman graduate with working class origins. Her father, who started work in a Lancashire cotton mill aged eleven, and her mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, had improved their family’s status and prospects by becoming missionaries to Africa. The Church Missionary Society, in return, educated their children.
Community, public service and an open attitude to other cultures characterised Roper’s upbringing.
In 1894 she became Secretary of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Society. Unlike other suffrage campaigners, she engaged working-class women at all levels of the campaign.
Her health collapsed in 1896. Friends funded a trip to Italy, where she met Eva Gore-Booth, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish baronet.
Was it not strange that by the tideless sea
the jar and hurry of our lives should cease,
That under olive boughs we found our Peace
And all the world’s great song in Italy?
Though Gore-Booth feared she was dying of TB, she accompanied Roper to damp, smoky Manchester, determined to spend the rest of her life with her.
This turned out to be thirty action-packed years.
Gore-Booth’s work setting up and promoting women’s trade unions complemented Roper’s suffrage campaigning. In 1900/1 they organised a suffrage petition open only to women working in Lancashire factories. Through their efforts it reached 29,359 signatures and was physically one of the largest ever delivered to Parliament.
Roper opposed militant tactics, not just as a pacifist but because she saw their use as an issue of privilege. Working class suffragists, she and Gore-Booth wrote, felt outraged at “being mixed up with and held accountable as a class for educated and upper class women who kick, shriek, bite and spit.”
Their support for all working women eventually pushed them out on a political limb.
In 1908 the Liberal Government threatened to prohibit women working after 8pm. This would have rendered bar maids effectively unemployable. In an era of high male unemployment, it was a blatant vote-grab.
Roper and Gore-Booth enlisted the latter’s sister, Countess Markievicz, who in a flamboyant election stunt drove a coach and four to the hustings of a Manchester bye-election to publicise the bar maids’ cause.
They defeated the Liberal candidate, Winston Churchill, but the strong links between the temperance and Labour movements produced a ferocious backlash.
World War I increased Roper and Gore-Booth’s isolation. Whereas the WSPU threw themselves into the war effort, the two pacifists worked to oppose conscription and to support conscientious objectors.
Though the three women were very close, Markievicz did not share their pacifism. A crack shot and Irish republican organiser, she was at the heart of the 1916 Easter Rising, coming close to execution for treason. Roper and Gore-Booth spent a lot of time in Dublin (then under martial law) campaigning for her pardon*.
Finally, they founded the pioneering journal Urania, a magazine decades ahead of its time in exploring ideas of gender fluidity and of gender as a social construct.
Gore-Booth died of cancer in 1926. Roper, despite being in poor health herself, worked on. She edited and published Gore-Booth’s poems and Markiewicz’s prison letters, worked as a teacher, campaigned against the death penalty and lived to see women achieve the vote on exactly the same terms as men.
She died in 1938, at the age of sixty-nine, having , together with the love of her life, done much to change the world.
*Markievicz became in December 1918 the first woman elected to the House of Commons, though as a Sinn Fein MP she did not take her. (You can read more about her in this Sheroes post.)
Written for Sheroes of History by Susan Hall.
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This PDF gives more detail about Esther’s life.