Esther Roper

Esther Roper 1868 – 1938

 LGBT magazine pioneer & campaigner for barmaids’ rights

Esther Roper

Esther Roper

Esther Roper was one of the first women to gain a degree from Manchester Uni (then known as Owens College). In 1886 she was admitted on a trial scheme to test whether females could study without harm to their mental or physical health

In 1893 she was employed to co-ordinate a leading women’s rights organisation in Manchester. Her focus on working class women getting the vote shocked old school campaigners who reckoned that only middle class, property owning women should take part in elections. Esther thought if women paid taxes and contributed to the economy, the least men in parliament could do was give them a vote, and a say on laws affecting their working conditions. She was angered that employment laws put women on the same footing as young people, rather than treating them as adults capable of making informed decisions. She went out and about to textile districts around Manchester, visiting working class women in factories and at home, drumming up support for the cause.

In 1896, exhausted from tireless campaigning, Esther took a break in Italy. It was there she met the love of her life, Eva Gore-Booth. Esther later wrote about their encounter:

“For months illness kept us in the south, and we spent the days walking and talking on the hillside by the sea. Each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we soon became friends and companions for life.”

Eva then gave up a life of luxury in Ireland to move in with Ether in her terraced house in Rusholme. Over the following decade the couple worked together on campaigns to protect working class women against new laws threatening their livelihood, successfully defending the rights of female coal mine workers, acrobats, gymnasts, and florists.

Esther Roper speaks at a barmaid's demo in Stevenson Square, Manchester, 1908

Esther Roper speaks at a barmaid’s demo in Stevenson Square, Manchester, 1908

They formed the Barmaids Defence League to campaign against a proposed ban on female bar staff. In 1908 a young Winston Churchill was re-standing for parliament arguing that barmaids should face the chop. In Manchester Esther and Eva organised a fantastically flamboyant barmaid support campaign. They gave speeches atop an ornate vintage carriage drawn by four white horses, driven by Gore-Booth’s sister Countess Constance Markievicz. Their protest was a success, Churchill didn’t get re-elected, and the ‘ban the barmaids’ bill didn’t get passed into law.

During the First World War Esther and Eva joined the Womens’ Peace crusade and travelled the country speaking in support of a negotiated peace to end the conflict.

In 1916, along with transwoman Irene Clyde, the couple co-founded one of Britain’s first LGBT publications. Published six times a year, Urania (meaning homosexual or third gender) was a privately circulated journal with clippings of articles from national and international press about same sex relationships and cross-dressing. Other content included discussions of outrageous (for the time) themes such as why women shouldn’t marry – challenging convention that unmarried women were just not attractive enough to bag a man; why we should live in a genderless society; and how passionate lesbian relationships are a great alternative to marriage.

In 1929, three years after her partner’s death, Esther published a collection of Eva’s poetry with an introduction paying tribute to the woman she loved:

“To the hard work which she did together for thirty years she bought a spirit of adventure and gaiety which nothing daunted. Of a gallant courage and a gentle courtesy she made life together a gracious thing. Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic.. At the end she looked up with that exquisite smile that always lightened up her face when she saw one she loved, then closed her eyes and was at peace.”

Esther died in April 1938 and was buried in the same grave as Eva, a quote from lesbian icon Sappho carved on their headstone.

For more info about Esther and Eva check out Sonja Tiernan’s ace book Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics.