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Eva Gore-Booth

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 3/9/2024

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

During the Great Famine of 1845-1859, “the blight,” now known to be the fungus phytophthora infestans, ravaged the vital potato crops across Ireland. Starvation claimed lives at an astonishing rate; an estimated 1.5 million people died. Between death and emigration, the population of Ireland dropped by half during these years.


Ireland was, at the time, part of the United Kingdom, and the seat of its government in faraway London. Most of the land was British owned, with these landowners rarely, if ever, living in Ireland. The Irish themselves existed as tenant farmers. “These tenants, generally referred to as peasants, paid extortionate rents to a small number of wealthy, absentee landlords who neglected their duties and siphoned off income from their estates to finance a fine social life in England,” wrote Michael J. Winstanley in Ireland and the Land Question, 1800-1922. “Responsibility for Ireland’s manifold ills was firmly laid at these landlords’ doors.” 


Famine relief from England was inconsistent, reluctant, and often inhumane. Even as the potato crops failed, England continued to demand its usual imports. According to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, “Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved.”


“Those who survived the disaster, appalled at apparent British indifference to their plight, were converted en masse to the separatist cause” of Ireland becoming an independent nation, Michael wrote. “God, so the story goes, may have sent the potato blight but the English caused the famine.”


On the Magherow peninsula in County Sligo of Ireland’s north-western coast, Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth welcomed their third child (of a total five) on May 22, 1870. Eva Selina Laura Gore-Booth was raised in Lissadell House, a Greek Revival-style mansion located on 32,000 acres of verdant Irish land.

Eva and her siblings were educated at home, learning poetry, arts, and multiple languages. When another “mini-famine” struck in 1879, 9-year-old Eva watched as her father did as her grandfather had done during the Great Famine: he bought and distributed food to his starving tenants and those of his neighbors’ lands as well.

Eva experienced an idyllic, if lonely, childhood. She and older sister Constance spent long hours riding horses and visiting the tenant farmers. Her poetry reveals a life-long love of the Irish countryside. In 1929’s The Little Waves of Breffny, she wrote:

“The grand road from the mountain goes shining to the sea,

And there is traffic in it and many a horse and cart,

But the little roads of Cloonagh are dearer far to me,

And the little roads of Cloonagh go rambling through my heart.”

Sister Constance was assertive and outspoken, while Eva sometimes retreated into the background. But hers was a keen mind and a heart passionately concerned with justice. In his essay ‘No Wild Utopian Theory’: The Anti-War Writings of Eva Gore-Booth, Andrew S. Rogers quoted “her first biographer, Esther Roper,” who says that in her childhood 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. Once, when very young, she was found taking off her coat to give to a child by the roadside, and nothing could persuade her that this was wrong. She could not believe it right to possess what others had not.”

Eva Gore-Booth. Photo courtesy Wikipedia/

In 1893, Constance married, becoming Constance Markiewicz, and she left Lissadell. The less-social Eva was disinterested in marriage and rarely enjoyed the parties that came with their class. Poet W.B. Yeats, newly published and just 29, stayed with the family in 1894, during which time he gave 24-year-old Eva great praise and encouragement in her own writing. He penned what remains the most famous record of Eva. “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” he wrote:


“The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.”


That “gazelle” was Eva. Throughout her life, her physical fragility and devotion to peace would give many the impression she was passive or demure. In her 20s, she traveled with her mother to a musical festival in Germany, then to Italy and the canals of Venice. When she fell ill, it was decided the Italian climate would be better for her than the damp of Ireland, so she journeyed to a villa in the border town of Bordighera to convalesce. There, she met Esther Roper.

Esther was from a working-class family, born in Manchester, England. After her parents’ death, she’d raised her 13-year-old brother, while also excelling in school and university. She’d been a driving force for English suffragists to consider the interests of poor and working-class women by separating the right to vote from any land or property ownership. She’d been working so tirelessly that she, too, had grown exhausted and ill, which was why she was at the villa in Bordighera in 1896.


Of meeting Eva, Esther wrote, “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 became friends and companions for life.” Eva, naturally, wrote about the meeting in a poem: 


“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?”


Once well, the women parted, but Eva was forever changed. Likely inspired by Esther, she dove into local activism for the enfranchisement of women in County Sligo. As leading Eva Gore-Booth historian Sonja Tiernan wrote in ‘Tabloid Sensationalism or Revolutionary Feminism?’ The first-wave feminist movement in an Irish women’s periodical:

Esther Roper at Owens College in 1892, four years before she would meet Eva in Italy. Public Domain

“Eva arranged a public meeting at Breaghwy Old School in Ballinfull in December 1896. ... The only account of the meeting is contained in an issue of a local weekly newspaper, the Sligo Champion. The Champion confirms that it was decided at this meeting to establish the Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association. ... Eva called the first official meeting of the Sligo Association on Friday 18 December 1896 at Milltown National Protestant School in Drumcliffe. A complete account of the meeting was printed in the Sligo Champion of 26 December. The report, headlined ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement’ describes ‘eloquent speeches for and against the question’. The subtitle of the article exhibits the journalist’s prejudice on the issue, characterising the meeting as ‘amusing proceedings’. ... The journalist reports that the hall was packed with attendees, over two thirds of whom were men apparently against the idea of female suffrage.”

The Irish Times would expand on the journalist’s “amusing” take and mocked Eva and Constance for their “privileged lifestyle.” Sonja continued, “It is clear from such news reports that Eva’s actions would never be judged objectively in Ireland. Journalists reporting for both the Champion and the Times were swayed by the fact that she was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. It is not surprising that the national newspapers did not take the meetings seriously, as the suffrage movement certainly did not seem relevant in Ireland at the time. … Achieving the vote for women who owned property would not impact on the lives of many Irish women nor would it gain Irish independence from Britain.” Irish suffragists were often criticized for “aligning with English activists” in the pursuit of the vote for women.


Eva fully rejected her aristocratic heritage and the comforts of Lissadell in 1897. She relocated permanently to Manchester to live with Esther among the pollution and desperation of the working class.


“The move was an enormously significant decision and would most likely have caused concern among Gore-Booth family members, because the women’s relationship crossed culture and class boundaries at a time when society frowned on such interactions,” Sonja wrote in Challenging Presumptions of Heterosexuality: Eva Gore-Booth, A Biographical Case Study. “The move from a rural area, with clear air and the luxuries of a privileged life-style, to smoke-bound industrial Manchester and Esther’s terraced house might also have adversely affected Eva’s delicate health.”


In his paper, Andrew, quoting Sonja, noted, “Nearly all academic and popular writers today acknowledge Gore-Booth and Roper as partners in a lifelong lesbian relationship, with the nature of the physical expression of that relationship, if any, both unprovable and irrelevant. What matters … is ‘to acknowledge Eva’s sexuality in order to fully appreciate her philosophical writings and extremely radical views of gender’ ... and to recognize that ‘their lives together testify to the strength of their love.’”

Now together in Manchester, Eva and Esther took on their most famous foe: Winston Churchill.


In 1908, a movement began to prohibit women from working as barmaids. Drinking and drunkenness were out of control, and women, according to the ban’s advocates, were often pulled into desperate lives of alcoholism, immoral behavior, and suicide. As experienced organizers, Eva and Esther saw through these arguments. “Although ostensibly meant to ‘free’ women from unhealthy, unsafe, and morally hazardous conditions, the clear intent [of the barmaid ban] was simply to reserve those jobs for men,” Andrew wrote. This went hand-in-hand with the resistance to women’s voting rights because “[w]hile male opposition to women’s suffrage was often patriarchal and protective in expression, Roper and Gore-Booth recognized that it was motivated at least as much by male workers’ desire to exclude economic competition.”


Of this conflict, Eva wrote powerfully on behalf of working women:

“It has often been said ‘Money is Power,’ it is equally true that Power is Money. With social traditions at his back, or real political influence to support him, the individual finds it easy enough to make good his claim to a fair share of the wealth, intellectual or material, owned by the community. Taking this fact into account, it will be seen that the working woman’s position is, indeed, a forlorn and difficult one. She has no social or political influence to back her. Her Trade Union stands or falls by its power of negotiating; it cannot hope to have the weight with employers that the men’s Unions have, for instead of being a strong Association of Voters, bound together in common interests in trade and politics, and able by numbers to change the issue of elections, and force its policy on the House of Commons, it is merely a band of workers carrying on an almost hopeless struggle to improve conditions of work and wages forced on them by arbitrary authority.”

Eva and Esther founded the Barmaids’ Political Defence League to advocate for women who simply wanted to keep their source of income. 


Winston Churchill was Member of Parliament for Northwest Manchester, and had recently been appointed to a Cabinet position. The law at the time required him to resign and then campaign for re-election to that same MP seat. This by-election was considered a formality, as usually the sitting MP was re-elected without issue. But Eva, Esther, and the Barmaids’ League backed Churchill’s opponent in loud and dramatic fashion—aided by wild Constance. 


Sonja recounted the exciting events in In Defence of Barmaids. Eva “organized a striking coach, drawn by four white horses, to be driven around Manchester with Markievicz at the whip. When the coach stopped, Gore-Booth and Markievicz took to the roof of the carriage and made rousing speeches. Markievicz was heckled by a man in the crowd with the inevitable male query, ‘Can you cook a dinner?’ ‘Certainly,’ she replied, cracking her whip. ‘Can you drive a coach-and-four?” 


Winston Churchill was defeated by 529 votes. Months later, the Barmaids’ League won their larger campaign as well and the ban was struck down.


In 1914, as the tensions grew that would lead to World War I, Eva, a devoted pacifist, sought to foster unity as others took up arms. She and Esther joined 101 other suffragists in signing the Open Christmas Letter, a missive penned by Emily Hobhouse and addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria.” It was published December 1914 in Jus Suffragii, the International Women Suffrage Alliance journal. The letter read, in part, “…while technically at enmity in obedience to our rulers, we own allegiance to that higher law which bids us live at peace with all men.” (The letter received a published response in Spring 1915 and was part of a large letter-writing campaign between suffragists throughout Europe during the war.)


“I question whether ever war has ever been fought for a good cause, though the soldiers who fought it may have been deluded into thinking so,” Eva wrote in an untitled, undated manuscript. “One sometimes thinks that the whole art of party politics is to dress shop windows with beautiful motives and noble aims so as to take in the public and keep them quiet while they are carrying out wholesale robberies and murders in the safe seclusion of Government Offices and Departments. ... The only safety for the public is to insist that methods should be as noble as motives.”


As 1916 dawned and the war entered its second year, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith announced a draft: All unlisted men between 18 and 41 would be conscripted into military service. Eva penned articles to be published in the Manchester Guardian, giving the argument for objection. “Objectors whose claims were accepted would be excused from active service, either unconditionally, or on a conditional basis, in which case they would be expected to perform other services of ‘national importance,’” Andrew wrote. “Many so-called ‘absolutists,’ however, refused to serve in any capacity—a refusal that put them at risk of long and arduous prison terms, or even a death sentence.”


Despite her poor health, Eva traveled to attend the hearings of the conscientious objectors to lend support and report the proceedings. She wrote of the “great cleavage of thought” between “People who believe that humanity exists for the sake of states and governments [and] ...People that believe that government and state exist for the sake of humanity.” Of that former group, she wrote:

“Your duty to the country you were born in [is] your highest duty. You must be ready to go out and kill and die if your country calls on you. The same principle that makes you if you are born in London willing to go out and kill people who are born in Vienna makes you if you are born in Vienna ready to go and kill people for being born in London. In fact you make a god of geography, and no holocaust of human lives is too great to be sacrificed to this amazing God. This great human sacrifice is the supreme expression of the religion of patriotism.”

The underlining is hers. 


She also wrote of these experiences in a fictionalized narrative, depicting herself as a “watcher” in the room as each objector’s “claim to a conscience was dismissed.” She gave words to a last objector who, when urged by the church’s representative on the panel to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” replied: “Yes, but so few things are Caesar’s ... some metal coins he has minted, the house he has built, the land he has seized, but never my soul or yours. My soul, my life, my conscience, my mind have nothing to do with the State. They are free as the sunshine and the air, for they belong to God alone.” A woman of deep faith, driven intensely by her belief in Christianity, Eva often viewed the church as a government actor, rather than a source of respite or wisdom.


Most of the efforts of the objectors failed, but Eva and Esther stayed committed to the cause of pacifism. Indeed, Eva’s thoughts on the subject only expanded in their eloquence and nuance. Then, an event arrested Eva’s attention fully from the objectors: The Easter Rising.


In April 1916, Irish republicans protesting for an independent Ireland free from British rule, seized and occupied important buildings, such as the post office, in Dublin. They flew their tricolor flag from the rooftops and declared an Irish Republic. The British response was powerful and devastating: Over 3,000 people were taken prisoner, martial law was declared widely throughout the country, and all the principal rebels—including Eva’s sister Constance—were sentenced to death by firing squad. (Constance’s sentence was later changed to life imprisonment “on account of her sex.” “I wish you had the decency to shoot me,” she told the court.)

Eva visited Constance in prison and also sent her pages of her play Death of Fionavar. Constance decorated the pages, as she’d done with Eva’s books of poetry in happier times. She hadn’t told Eva about the uprising; she understood well her sister’s devotion to non-violence, even if she didn’t share it. Constance, and several other rebels, were released from prison in 1917.


While it’s tempting to see the sisters as in opposition to each other, R.M. Fox, a contemporary journalist and historian, argued otherwise. Andrew quoted him as saying, “The gap dividing the sisters is much smaller than many people realise, although they seem at opposite poles. Both were rebels against all that they regarded as mean and unworthy. Their passionate selfless sincerity drove them in different directions. ... Paradoxical as it may seem, somewhere behind this diversity of conduct was a unity—a devotion to truth.”


The murder of uninvolved civilians during the suppression of the Easter Rising and the execution of its organizers, some of whom Eva knew personally, impacted her deeply. Despite their provocative acts, she characterized the fallen Irish as noble and heroic. She did not support the violence of an individual, but she thoroughly condemned the violence of the State.


During some of the most contentious times in her homeland’s history, Eva did not join any rebellion or independence groups. She loved Ireland but rejected nationalism. “Instead,” Andrew noted, “the concerns she addresses in these years include the unjust treatment of prisoners, the cruelty and immorality of capital punishment, and… [the] suffering of the family and friends of prisoners condemned to death.” He summed up succinctly, “[T]here is nothing passive about her pacifism.” Hers was a difficult road to walk, and she did so mindfully, thoroughly. Her pacifism was not passive, nor was it naïve.

Older sister Constance often added art to Eva’s written works, including The Death of Fionavar, which she illustrated while in prison. Those prison drawings later inspired those used in the published version. Digital archive: Trinity College Library Dublin

In 1923, in A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel, she wrote, “It’s extraordinary how many attempts there have been in history, by well-intentioned people, to set the world to right by getting a lot of people to kill one another in the interests of virtuous living or the regeneration of Society. A good cause is no excuse for an evil method. You cannot stop wrongdoing by the massacre of a battle, for massacre itself is wrong.”


When women over age 30 earned the right to vote in 1918, Eva and Esther cast their votes. True to form, Constance not only voted—she was also on the ballot. She became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, but refused to take her seat, which was the Sinn Féin party line to demonstrate their opposition to British rule.


Eva wrote and published throughout her life, from poems to plays to philosophical essays. She also founded the publication Urania, in which she and other suffragists collected and reprinted news stories from around the world that featured people challenging gender norms. “Stories of boys who mysteriously changed into girls or women who cross-dressed as men were included in newspapers as a form of scandalous amusement,” Sonja wrote. “In Urania, the sensationalism was significantly altered through a careful process of analysis and editing.” It was another effort in Eva’s life-long challenge of hierarches, this one of gender itself.  


At age 56 in June 1926, Eva died of intestinal cancer. Her first and most devoted biographer was Esther, without whom much of Eva’s history may never have been preserved to be rediscovered. When Esther died 12 years later, she was buried beside Eva in London. On their shared headstone is a line of poetry by Sappho, “Life that is Love is God.”



Sources: ‘No Wild Utopian Theory’: The Anti-War Writings of Eva Gore-Booth by Andrew S. Rogers, ‘Engagements Dissolved’: Eva Gore-Booth, Urania and the Challenge to Marriage by Sonja Tiernan, ‘Tabloid Sensationalism or Revolutionary Feminism?’ The first-wave feminist movement in an Irish women’s periodicalby Sonja Tiernan

JSTOR: In Defense of Barmaids by Sonja Tiernan, 

Poetry Foundation: Eva Gore-Booth

Wikpedia: Eva Gore-BoothOpen Christmas LetterEaster Rising

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum: Learn About the Great Hunger

TED-Ed: What really caused the Irish Potato Famine

Ireland and the Land Question 1800-1922 by Michael J. Winstanley

The Library of Trinity College Dublin: Death of Fionavar from The triumph of MaeveThe One and the Many