Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Constance Markievicz, who blazed a trail for female politicians by winning a seat in the British Parliament just months after women secured the vote in 1918.
A political activist whose beliefs landed her in prison many times throughout her life, Constance Gore-Booth was born in 1868 into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and grew up in Sligo, Ireland.
In 1900, she married Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz of Poland and became Countess Markievicz in the process. After moving to Dublin, she became interested in politics, embracing the Irish Nationalist Movement and joining the revolutionary women’s group Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) as well as the Irish republican party Sinn Féin.
In 1916, Markievicz was involved in the Easter Rising (an armed uprising against British rule), and was arrested and imprisoned. Initially sentenced to death, she had this commuted to life imprisonment because of her gender, but was actually released the following year on a general amnesty for those who took part in the Easter Rising.
In December 1918, during the UK General Election, Markievicz was the first women ever to be elected as an MP to the British House of Commons, or indeed, to be elected to any office in Parliament – an enormous feat on many counts.
Firstly, this was the same year that some women (over 30; married or property-owners) had just been granted the vote and women were actually allowed to stand for election, after decades of campaigning. Secondly, Markievicz beat a male MP with 35 years of political experience – and she did it by taking an amazing 66% of the vote.
Thirdly, she managed to get elected while she was in prison again, this time serving a sentence for allegedly conspiring against the British government (she was released in 1919).
However, Markievicz exercised her right not to take her elected seat in line with Sinn Féin’s traditional policy (the swearing in at the House of Commons involved an oath of allegiance to the King, which they refused to take).
She became the first woman ever to be elected to Dáil Éireann (the Assembly of Ireland), which was set up by the Irish Republicans, to represent the constituency of Dublin. She served as minister for labour from 1919 to 1922.
She held cabinet rank for several months in 1919, making her the first Irish female cabinet minister. She remained active in politics and was elected twice more. She was also a tireless charity worker – when she died suddenly of appendicitis in 1927, she was on a poor ward having given away all her money.
Markievicz paved the way for all women who followed her in British and Irish politics. After her election, a succession of women became MPs in both Britain and Ireland.
Shockingly, though, she remained the only female Irish cabinet minister until 1979 when Máire Geoghegan- Quinn became minister for the Gaeltacht (the department of children and youth affairs).
Women are still badly underrepresented in politics – in Britain they make up only 32% of all MPs.
Main illustration: Bijou Karman. Other image: Getty Images