A portrait of the suffragette and Irish revolutionary has just been gifted to the UK parliament. Here’s why she was so important.
On 4 February 1868, a baby named Constance Gore-Booth was born in Westminster, London. The circumstances of her birth gave no hint as to the radical woman she would later become. Her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth, was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and Arctic explorer, who owned extensive land and a grand country pile in County Sligo, Ireland. Her mother, Lady Georgina Gore-Booth, grew up in a castle in Yorkshire. Revolutionaries, they were not.
Yet Constance became a suffragette, a famous rebel who fought for Irish independence from Britain, and the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. And her awe-inspiring story is impossible to disentangle from the history of women’s rights in the UK, or from the story of Ireland’s struggle against British colonialism.
On 18 July 2018, the Irish parliament gifted a picture of Constance Markievicz – as she became known after her marriage – to the UK parliament, in recognition of her groundbreaking role in British history. Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons in December 1918, less than a month after the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave women the right to stand as candidates in elections for the first time.
While she faithfully represented her new constituency of St Patrick’s Dublin for four years, Markievicz always refused to take her seat in the House of Commons. This reflected the policy of her party, the Irish nationalists Sinn Féin, as well as her own passionately-held belief that Ireland should not be ruled from Westminster.
“While Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and unconvertible,” she said in 1921. “There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing – a free and independent Republic.”
Incredibly, Markievicz campaigned for the 1918 election from a cell in Holloway Prison, where she had been jailed for Irish nationalist activities. Unlike many prominent English suffragettes such as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – who thought the struggle for the vote should be a single-issue movement – Markievicz’s desire for women’s suffrage was closely entwined with her other political beliefs.
She pushed for votes for women at the same time as she fought for Irish independence. In 1909, she wrote: “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.”
This ability to connect two seemingly distinct political issues – what we would today term ‘intersectionality’ – worked in Markievicz’s favour. By the time it came to the general election in 1918, there was no question as to whether she was qualified to represent her constituency.
Markievicz was first introduced to ideas about gender equality while studying art in London in her 20s, and went on to join the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She later studied in Paris, where she met her husband, Casimir Markievicz. In 1908, ten years before she became an MP, she joined the radical Irish national women’s movement Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”).
That same year, she travelled to Manchester to join English suffragists, suffragettes and the Barmaid’s Political Defence League in their campaign against Winston Churchill, who was standing in a by-election and opposed giving women the vote.
To raise awareness of their cause, Markievicz drove through Manchester in an old-fashioned carriage driven by four white horses (white, of course, being one of the colours of the women’s suffrage movement). Famously, a male heckler asked her if she could cook him dinner. “Yes,” she replied. “Can you drive a coach and four?” Churchill was defeated in the by-election.
Markievicz’s profound belief in the need for Irish independence was said to have come from her childhood, when she witnessed how the famine affected peasants in her native Sligo. While she herself grew up in the lap of luxury at her ancestral home of Lissadell Hall, enjoying typical aristocratic activities like hunting and riding, she quickly became conscious of the fact that her privileges were down to her parents’ status as Anglo-Irish landowners.
After joining Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Sinn Féin, she became heavily involved in revolutionary activity opposing British rule. She first came to the British government’s attention when she co-founded a nationalist scouts organisation to train Irish boys for war, and was jailed for the first time in 1911 for taking part in a demonstration against a visit by King George V.
At the rally, she threw stones at pictures of the King and Queen, handed out nationalist leaflets and attempted to set a giant British flag on fire. Later, she would say she was “ready to die for Ireland one way or another”.
Markievicz played a pivotal role in the Easter Rising of 1916, when fighting between the Irish rebels and the British military reached a crescendo. (She was a crack shot with a pistol, and advised other women rebels to “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver”.)
After a shoot-out with British forces at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Markievicz was jailed, kept in solitary confinement and sentenced to death – a sentence which was later commuted due to her gender. This frustrated her, as she felt she shouldn’t be treated any differently from male revolutionaries because of her gender.
She was released from jail under an amnesty in 1917, but was detained again in 1918 and transferred to Holloway Prison – where she was when her victory in the 1918 election was announced. She beat her opponent, William Field, with 66% of the vote, and was freed from Holloway shortly after.
As well as serving as MP for Dublin St Patrick’s, Markievicz also served as Ireland’s minister for labour between 1919 and 1922, becoming the first Irish female cabinet minister and the second female government member in Europe. She died in 1927 aged 59, a rebel until the end.
Images: Getty Images