Evelyn Irons

A yellowed black and white photo of Evelyn Irons, a white woman with long dark hair. She has bangs and her hair is tied into a ponytail behind her. She wears a dress with puffy sleeves and many buttons that close at her neck. She wears a medal on her chest and a ribbon around her neck.

A yellowed black and white photo of Evelyn Irons, a white woman with long dark hair. She has bangs and her hair is tied into a ponytail behind her. She wears a dress with puffy sleeves and many buttons that close at her neck. She wears a medal on her chest and a ribbon around her neck.

"It was love at first sight. Right from the start, they were meant to be together. It was a relaxed, natural relationship."

A Scottish lesbian journalist who was frequently underestimated, Evelyn Irons was a prominent member of the queer community in the 1900s. Given her influence, you might see some familiar names from the era. We have the pleasure of going over some prominent women loving women and seeing the tangled lines that connect so many lived.

Born in 1900, Evelyn Irons lived for just under 100 years, putting her in an interesting position. She lived through and affected a century of the queer community. However, that was not her only interest. Born in Glasgow, her drive first led her to pursue secondary education and graduate from Somerville College in Oxford.

Her intended career was in journalism, so upon graduating she joined The Daily Mail. When they saw she was a woman, they assigned her to the beauty page, a position for which she was both under and over-qualified. It was and still is, common for journalists to be assigned positions not because of their experience or knowledge in a field, but because of preconceived notions of gender roles. This affects not only the people who write but the stories they're able to tell. This is what leads to women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Gloria Steinem to be placed under the fashion section of The New York Times.

Like the many women who were put in this position before and after, Irons quickly found the column wasn't a fit. Very plainly, she had never worn makeup in her life and was consequently let go for being too unfashionable.

Moving to the Evening Standard offered only a slight improvement, going from beauty to women's interest. It was through this role, however, that she came to interview Vita Sackville-West. She was already a prominent writer, and the two hit it off quickly, travelling together without the knowledge of Vita's husband. They began a relationship which later included Olive Rinder.

Though it was later said that Irons was the "war correspondent who broke Vita's heart," the romance didn't last long. Irons broke it off when she met Joy McSweeney. Like many of the women she loved, Irons ended up in Vita's poetry. Even after their relationship ended, Vita dedicated one of her books to Irons.

Joy McSweeney was another daring journalist that Irons met at a party in 1931. Irons was in her thirties at the time, whereas McSweeney was in her mid-forties and had already been through two divorces. Irons' biographer Sue Fox wrote of their relationship:

"It was love at first sight. Right from the start, they were meant to be together. It was a relaxed, natural relationship."

Though these connections she made in this time were doubtlessly valuable throughout the rest of Irons’ life, she was still uncomfortable with her role in the women’s interest section. Though these columns were inherently less important, neither beauty nor women's interest were a fit for Irons' skill set. It was during the beginning of World War II that she finally hit her limit.

She quit her job, went directly to the news editor, and told him "from now on I'm working for you." She spent some time behind the writing desk, but still found herself dissatisfied. While in the middle of moving into Lodge Hill Cottage with McSweeney, she went to report on the front lines. While most of the men around her discouraged her idea of reported from the battlefield, assigning her instead to the hospitals, she approached Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.

With the French General's support, she made her way onto the field. It was there that she truly began to thrive, even assisting in capturing a town in Bavaria. Irons later told historian Phillip Knightley:

“We somehow had got ahead of the advance, and four of us in a jeep came to this village and found no Allied troops had arrived. So we took it ourselves. We were armed - the French would have none of this nonsense about war correspondents not carrying weapons - so we held up everyone at gunpoint and accepted their surrender. Then we helped ourselves to all the radios, cameras and binoculars we could find and drove off."

Through her journalism work on the field, Evelyn Irons became the first woman to receive the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. It's also said that she was the first woman to reach Hitler's Eagle Nest after it was captured, crawling through snow and helping herself to some of Hitler's wine once she arrived.

All the while, she built a life for herself and McSweeney at their cottage. They worked together to restore the property and ingratiate themselves with the locals. The two knocked together multiple cottages to create a gorgeous home with lush gardens and a 43 square foot drawing-room. It was in their time there that Sue Fox said that the two were happiest. Their relationship became an open secret.

Even when Irons left to pursue her career in the United States for a period of time, they kept the home and rented it out.

Both women maintained their brave journalism in the new country, and Irons became admired in her field. Together until McSweeney’s death in 1988, Irons died just before her hundredth birthday twelve years later.

While the field of journalism wasn’t, and often still isn’t, accepting of new voices, Irons paved the way for many women who came after her. She was the first in many things, and her stories are so diverse there is room to tell them all. Even after their relationship ended, she and Vita remained close and very fond of each other. Many of Vita's works are still said to be about Irons.

Despite many obstacles, Irons lived a happy life: a successful career, a beautiful home, a cherished wife. It is another reminder that no matter the time, queer people have carved out spaces for themselves. Irons is not an exception, she is a part of the beautiful complex history of queerness.

It is so easy to fall into the belief that the legacy of our community is one of pain and constant battling, but it isn’t true. It has never been true, it will never be true. Queer people build happiness and success out of rejection every day and have done so for centuries. There is nothing powerful enough to stop that.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

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