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The forgotten history of Constance Markievicz, the first female MP

Nancy Astor is often remembered as the first female MP to take her seat. But it was the rebellious Irish MP Constance Markievicz, elected from her prison cell in London, who would reshape British politics. 

“I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me” are words you wouldn’t expect from the first woman elected to the House of Commons, particularly if you believe the woman who holds the title is Conservative MP Nancy Astor. In fact, the words were uttered by Countess Constance Markievicz, elected to Westminster in 1918. Markievicz was the sole victor in an election where 17 women stood. The Irish revolutionary, suffragist, Labour activist and artist stood for Sinn Féin and won the seat for Dublin St. Patrick’s from her Holloway prison cell in London, where she was detained for her part in the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. Markievicz delivered these barbed words shortly after she was informed that her death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment because of her gender (she was released the following year, on a general amnesty for the rebels). 

Astor, who was recently honoured with a statue unveiled by Theresa May in her Plymouth constituency, was the first woman to take her seat – Markievicz did not, as per Sinn Féin’s abstentionist ticket. The rhetoric surrounding Astor has been both confused and divisive – Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock’s ignorance of Markievicz was one of many inaccurate Astor tributes. Meanwhile, celebrations of Astor as Westminster’s first female MP have been widely criticised in light of her known sympathies for Nazism, and her anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic views. 

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Comparing Astor to Markievicz offers a stark insight into two political and social opposites. The former was feminist by default rather than design; the latter was a radical, grassroots agitator with a distinctly feminist agenda. Examining the context makes clear that Astor’s election was more of a conservative depth plumbing move: she succeeded her husband Waldorf, who received the Plymouth seat via peerage, and was supported by the Conservatives likely because of the ongoing pressure to support the suffrage movement, and because of Markievicz’s election the year before. Astor’s ascension was the perfect distraction from the other female MP: a rebel from unruly Ireland involved in the more radical side of the suffrage movement, whose values were at odds with conservative, Imperial Britain.

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver,” Markievicz famously said a year before the Easter Rising rebellion, in a speech to the Irish Women’s Franchise. An unlikely rebel, Constance Gore-Booth grew up in the Anglo-Irish upper class. She was nurtured by socialist parents and both horrified and emboldened by the visible poverty in her hometown Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast. Markievicz was first imprisoned in 1911 for protesting a royal visit to Ireland, and would later become an integral figure in the Irish independence fight. She was a founding member of women’s paramilitary group Cumann na mBan that joined the Easter Rising; and after serving time in prison, Markievicz went on to help found the first Dail Eireann. She became the second woman ever to hold a cabinet position as minister for labour in 1919, but left government as she opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty that embedded the British Union and partition. She was politically active until her death in 1927.

Lauren Arrington, an English professor at Maynooth University, wrote an expansive dual biography on Constance and her husband Casimir, a painter, director, and playwright. Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz is set against the London, Paris, and Dublin avant-garde scenes that would burnish – and radicalise – their views about politics, art, and rebellion. Arrington traces both Markieviczs’s social and political trajectories. Casimir in his liberal imperialism joined the Russian imperial army to fight for Polish freedom in World War I; then Constance, who became increasingly involved in reinvigorated Irish nationalism. Arrington is keen to dispel the whitewashing and idealising of Astor. “We have to recognise the issues with painting Astor as a ‘woman of her time’. Markievicz – her political opposite – was also a woman of her time with radical, egalitarian politics”, she tells me. 

Markievicz’s platform was proudly progressive and feminist. Though best known for her Irish republicanism, she was inspired by the suffrage movement and founded Sligo’s women’s suffrage society with her sister, fellow activist and suffragette Eva Gore-Booth in the mid-1890s. Later, Markievicz would spend time with Gore-Booth and British campaigner Esther Roper in Manchester, where she visited women in factories, cotton mills, and slums. She inherited the suffrage movement’s social ideals and transmitted these to the movement for Irish independence, campaigning in early London occupation protests for suffrage. Although advocating for British suffrage became more difficult as the Irish nationalist cause advanced, Markievicz remained a passionate defender of the suffragist movement. “Her Irishness and nationalism is not separate from the work that she did in suffrage,” says Arrington. 

“Markievicz was not a sole operator, but was part of a diverse group of activist women. Her politics weren’t just about Ireland – she learned from women’s and anti-imperialist movements in Paris, London, Poland, and Russia”, Arlington adds. These socialist ideals championed by women of the era contrast starkly with Astor’s ascension to power.

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So where is Markievicz in today’s narrative? It was in 2018 that she was formally honoured for the first time in the House of Commons with a portrait. On the year marking 150 years since her birth, a statue of Markievicz was erected on Dublin’s O’Connell street, the first statue of a woman on the famous city road. Brexit has renewed the question of a united Ireland, making Markievicz’s ideals feel electric once more. And yet recognition of Markievicz outside of Ireland is scant.

“In England, I think she’s still considered to be a dangerous figure, associated with political violence and destabilisation, without understanding her contexts or motives,” says Arrington. That Markievicz is a reminder of Britain’s imperialism helps explain the UK’s omission. Where Northern Ireland – for many Irish Nationalists, known as “the occupied six counties” – has been deeply affected by austerity cuts and the lack of a functioning devolved assembly, it’s unsurprising that Britain seems reluctant to memorialise a champion of Irish nationalism. 

Blindboy Boatclub is a Limerick-born comedian, podcast host, political commentator, and author who explores the political and social landscape of contemporary Ireland through a postcolonial lens, with acerbic wit. “By not recognising Markievicz, the Tories are saying that supporting Nazis is better than drawing attention to how cruel Britain was to Ireland. By recognising her, Britain would gain a much needed insight into its history and its lasting impact today, not just in Ireland, but around the world,” Blindboy says. “Blatant and deliberate ignorance of Britain towards its own history is fairly hurtful and irksome to the people who suffered under that history.”

Markiewicz’s legacy feels most charged among the young, feminist, radical left that has grown up across Ireland – her image is used in pro-choice activist literature and protest, her speeches and quotes reiterated across Irish twitter. The mighty Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, who led a socialist, anti-sectarian charge in Northern Ireland and was elected as the youngest MP at 22 in 1969, referenced Markievicz’s important legacy in her maiden House speech. The socialist ideals of Markievicz feel all the more urgent for today’s youth, who feel alienated from their Conservative forebears. 

Grian Ní Dhaimhín, a Strabane, Tyrone-born student of history and social anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, is an active Irish language activist and student housing campaigner who has been influenced by Markievicz’s work. “I grew up in a strong republican household and from the first time I learned about Constance Markievicz I have always drawn inspiration from her,” she says. “I have always been a republican, left-wing, and a fierce feminist. I think the cantankerous feminist in me comes from being from Tyrone and from reading about Markievicz when I was younger. I doubt if I hadn’t have ever known about her that I would speak up about the women of our movements that have been forgotten about a bit too easily.” 

Dhaimhín says that Markievicz’s part in Irish history is “too easily forgotten. She is left out, I believe, because she was a Republican and engaged in armed struggle. I feel it is something some people are uncomfortable with. But it is part of our history, and we cannot erase radical women from our history.”

Fiona Ferguson, a councillor for the People Before Profit party in the Oldpark district, Belfast, echoes this, adding that “that rich radicalism thrives today, too”. The party runs on a socialist ticket, championing welfare reform, stopping Brexit, reversing austerity cuts, and promoting issues like funding for childcare. 

“I'm very inspired not only by radical women of Ireland’s past, but of incredible fighters today like Bernadette McAliskey – a woman who won a seat in Westminster against the might of the Ulster Unionist establishment at the time. In memorable acts like slapping Reginald Maudling MP for his despicable comments about Bloody Sunday, or being given the key to New York and handing it over to the Black Panthers, her indomitable will continues to electrify young women in Ireland today”, Ferguson says.

“For me the most important radical women in Ireland are those in communities like mine who fight back against a system that punishes them every day,” Ferguson adds. “It's the women who rose up and fought back for abortion rights North and South and it's the trans women who fight every day in an island that has a long way to go in terms of respecting their rights. It's those building for a different kind of Ireland and I can tell you, that fight has women leading the way, wherever you look.”

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Recent milestones like the repeal of Ireland’s draconian abortion laws and Northern Ireland’s forthcoming abortion law reform have dramatically changed women’s lives. But for both Ferguson and Arrington, the country is far from the socialist community Markievicz would have celebrated. “Ireland is still deeply conservative when it comes to the rights of migrants and economic policies,” Arrington says, referring to Markievicz’s dogged campaigning against homelessness and for inclusive social welfare, which jars with Ireland’s housing crisis, the recent homeless deaths in Belfast, and the cruel Direct Provision system for housing asylum seekers in the Republic of Ireland. “Current politicians need to attend to these aspects of her legacy, which are convenient to forget.”

When Theresa May unveiled the statue of Nancy Astor in Plymouth, she said the whole country “should be proud of the great strides that… Astor made for equality and representation”. Yet claiming Astor as a feminist icon does a disservice to the struggle that Markievicz championed, and fundamentally misrepresents the past – a dangerous move during a moment of political uncertainty and heated nationalism. “I believe that embracing the work of Irish women to improve British and Irish lives would stand any political party in good stead in Britain right now,” Lauren Arrington tells me. “There is a conservative anxiety about radical Irishness, particularly because of the instability of Northern Ireland with Brexit.” 

Though Markievicz undoubtedly deserves her place in the history books, her fiercely radical values feel ever more relevant in today’s amorphous political landscape; in Northern Ireland’s recent nurse’s strike, the largest industrial action the country has ever seen; in the recently elected SDLP MP Claire Hanna’s pledge of allegiance to protest; and in Alliance’s Stephen Farry’s opening House speech spoken in Irish – the first time Gaelic has been spoken in such a speech since 1901. 

Can one woman ever capture the amorphous, intersectional identities of women in politics today? “I think to recognise women of suffrage had incredibly diverse politics is vital, we wouldn’t expect to homogenise male parliamentarians in the way we do these women”, says Arlington. Intersectionality – a concept that thrives in contemporary political debates – sparkles in Markievicz’s 1909 words to women at the Dublin Literary Society, and remains a stark rallying call: “The first step on the road to freedom is to realise ourselves as Irishwomen – not as Irish or merely as women, but as Irishwomen doubly enslaved and with a double battle to fight.”

Anna Cafolla is the deputy editor at Dazed.