By Maeve Moran
Born in 1870, Eva Gore-Booth was to become eclipsed in the glory of her revolutionary sister Countess Constance Markievicz, a significant participant of the 1916 Easter Rising. Gore-Booth herself is distinguished for her contribution to Irish poetry, her lifelong, loving partnership with fellow activist Esther Roper, her friendship with W.B. Yeats and her connection to the suffragette movement. However, her remarkable challenge to contemporary feminism of the early twentieth century is almost completely buried in history, as is her rejection of gender duality in the journal Urania.
The journal’s provocative mission statement asserts that ‘there are no ‘men’ or ‘women’ in Urania’. Founded in 1916 with notable editors including Gore-Booth, Esther Roper and non-binary Irene Clyde (Thomas Baty), Urania was privately circulated and offered free to those who subscribed to its ethos, allowing the distribution of eighty-two issues. A register of subscribers no longer exists, making it impossible to know who exactly supported Urania, although it is known that both Girton and Newnham Colleges at the University of Cambridge subscribed. Only seventy-three issues are known to exist today.
‘Urania’, as a concept, existed long before the founding of this journal. The word has ancient origins, referenced in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and is also reminiscent of Uranus, the Greek God of the Sky, who was mutilated and thereafter assumed the feminine capability of bearing a child. The word was distorted over time, eventually becoming associated with homosexuality by German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and later used to describe an ‘intermediate sex’ by British socialist writer Edward Carpenter. This is likely where Gore-Booth came into contact with the term.
The purpose of Urania was to remove the restraints associated with fixed gender, particularly those experienced by women. The primary aim was to eventually promote an ‘ideal gender’ with characteristics of both sexes. In addition, the editors mocked heterosexual relations, particularly the construct of marriage, and openly favoured same-sex unions. Urania re-printed articles such as the London Times’, ‘Do unmarried women miss the half of life?’ rebutting with their own article: ‘It is the married woman who too often only sees one side of life – the domestic side. The single woman sees all the others’. Urania considered marriage an institution that relies on gender difference and ultimately renders women inferior. In fact, spinsterhood was presented as a political decision allowing ‘freedom, liberty and independence’. Urania went on to celebrate declining birth rates and the breaking off of high-profile engagements and re-printed articles from around the world relating to instances where individuals transgressed gender roles, cross-dressed, and, in later issues, were involved in cases of transsexuality.
Urania was not conceived from nothing, and Gore-Booth openly took inspiration from powerful female figures such as Queen Elizabeth I, who was quoted as saying: ‘If I follow the inclination of my nature it is this: Beggar and single, far rather than the Queen and married.’ Another important figure of admiration for the editor was Ancient Greek poet Sappho, whose female lovers were the subject of her works. English journalist Arthur Weigall’s 1932 adaptation of Sappho’s story depcticted her tragic suicide as a result of her affections being rejected by a local fisherman; the editors of Urania strongly rejected this and chose to present her in a socially romantic context, rather than sexually deviant. An extract of Sappho’s poetry was chosen by Roper for the joint headstone of herself and Gore-Booth.
Gore-Booth is widely cited as the journal’s ‘leader’ and yet this aspect of her life’s work is widely overlooked or misrepresented. Several texts about the activist do not mention Urania at all. One biography briefly mentions the journal and states, ‘Urania preached […] that freedom would be achieved when men and women rejected gender stereotypes.’ This is unquestionably inconsistent with the statement in the journal’s manifesto: ‘No measures of ‘emancipation’ or ‘equality’ will suffice, which do not begin by a complete refusal to recognise or tolerate the duality [of gender] itself.’
After Gore-Booth died in 1926, she left behind the bold legacy of Urania’s 24-year circulation, throughout the height of social reform in Britain and Ireland. The feminist views of the activist are acknowledged today largely in relation to the suffragette movement, an eventually successful movement of the time. If the widely established feminist activism of the 1920s, primarily advocating for emancipation and equality within marriage, is considered alongside Urania, it is difficult to associate the two at all. This journal exists both as a crucial aspect of Eva Gore-Booth’s life’s work and as a significant example of feminist activism which could easily spark contentious debate today, thriving one hundred years ago and successfully obscured in our history books.
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