Spirited: The new exhibition spotlighting women's history

Catherine Riley looks ahead to a new exhibition opening tomorrow in Manchester



Most of you will know that British women won the right to vote 100 years ago this year. Well, some of them. You had to be over 30. And you had to own or rent your own property – or be married to a man who did.


So what about the queer women? What about the young women? What about the working-class women?


The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave 8.5 million women the vote – but this represented less than half of the adult women in the UK. So while it’s been great to see this year’s centenary celebrations, there is a big gap in the story we’re told about the march to equal suffrage.


We wanted to fill that gap. Our exhibition Spirited, which opens in Manchester on 19 October and runs for two weeks, is focused on the girls and young women that were left out of the franchise in 1918, in spite of their efforts to change the law.  


It's part of our £2 million investment in projects that will make a big difference to women and girls in this centenary year, promoting and celebrating them as agents of change.


Centring on Manchester as the birthplace of the suffrage movement, it features women from across the northwest, all of whom became activists in their teens or 20s. Spirited brings to life their incredible acts of courage, creativity and cunning in the face of brutal repression and repeated betrayal by a government they had no power to influence. 


Among the women it features are Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, two women born into completely different worlds but who were united by their sense of injustice at the inequalities they saw around them. One lived and worked in the slums of industrial Manchester, the other was from Irish nobility – a suffragette Lady and the Tramp, if you will.  


Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper


Esther Roper was born in Manchester to a clergyman father who spent most of her childhood overseas working as a missionary, and a housewife mother who died aged 43 of a fever common in women who had multiple pregnancies in a short number of years. 


Her father’s position in the church meant Esther was able to attend Owens College, and she became one of the earliest graduates of Victoria University, Manchester, before going on to work as a suffrage union organiser in the city’s factories. 


Eva was born into an aristocratic family in Sligo, Ireland, and spent her childhood among the high societies of both her home country and England. From a young age Eva was troubled by the contrast between her wealth and privilege and the poverty of others – in particular during the Irish famine of 1879 – and was by 1895 in serious ill health, suspected to be suffering from "consumption". 


In 1896, Eva was sent abroad by her family to recuperate from this illness. She met Esther in Italy, where she too had been sent with a "weak chest" and exhaustion brought on by overwork. They were introduced to one another in an olive grove in the grounds of a villa in Bordighera and from this first meeting, felt an immediate connection that was to last the rest of their lives – as Eva recorded in a poem some years later:


"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?"


Esther was 28, Eva 25, when they found their peace with one other – and Eva immediately moved her life from Ireland to Manchester to be with Esther. They dedicated their lives to fighting for working class women’s rights, and for votes for women, setting up trade unions for women textile workers, and helping groups of female workers to organise campaigns and demonstrations when their livelihoods were threatened. 


They initially worked alongside the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union, but later distanced themselves, disagreeing with the WSPU’s militant tactics and lack of interest in campaigning for working class women’s rights.


They moved to London in 1913, where they founded the journal Urania, which published articles exploring radical (for the time) ideas about sexuality and gender. In 1925 Eva was diagnosed with bowel cancer and was tended by Esther for the next 18 months, until her death on 30 June 1926. Esther died 12 years later, on 28 April 1938. They are buried in the same grave in Hampstead, north London – on their headstone is a quote from Sappho: "Life that is love is god".


We made Esther one of our five featured "Spirited women" because in spite of her lifetime’s work for women’s suffrage and gender equality, you probably won’t have heard of her. 


She was never one to push herself forward, and would have baulked at some of the more outlandish tricks of her contemporaries (Flora Drummond, for example, had a penchant for dressing in military outfits in her role as a WSPU organiser, while Mary Richardson took a hatchet to a famous Velasquez painting in the National Gallery in order to draw attention to the cause). 


Esther’s story, and her life with Eva, is remarkable, and moving, and an inspiration. I hope that this year’s celebrations are just the start of an excavation of stories like theirs, a spotlighting of women’s history that will inspire today’s activists to pick up where they left off, and to fight for the change we need to see today.


Spirited is funded by Spirit of 2012. To find out more visit spiritof2012.org.uk/spirited.


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