19 MARCH 2018

In 1918, Constance Markievicz became the first and only woman to be elected to the House of Commons. As critics of women’s suffrage had often argued that women had neither the intellect nor the resilience for political life, it seems fitting that the first woman MP had both, and had lived a more adventurous and determinately political life than the vast majority of her fellow parliamentarians. She was elected on a feminist, socialist and Irish republican platform, and she played a crucial part in the history of Westminster, without ever having stepped foot in the place. One hundred years on we celebrate her election and the feminist movement that enabled and we think too about contemporary feminist struggles in Ireland, especially the upcoming referendum on abortion.

Markievicz was a remarkable activist, a women of many causes, as well as an artist, a friend and a mother. She was best known for her role in the Easter Rising of 1916, but she was involved in a number of other campaigns, some of them unfashionable and controversial. She also presents an interesting and inspiring case study for contemporary feminist activists because she was not a lone wolf. She worked with other women and men in a large number of organizations, relied on her friends and took strength from the women around her.

She was born into the wealthy, land-owning Gore-Booth family in 1868. Her background constrained her in some ways but it also provided opportunities that were unavailable to most women and men in Ireland at that time. Like so many political women of her generation, she became initially politicized through feminism. In 1896, she and her sister formed the North Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association, with Eva as honorary secretary and Constance as president. Eva Gore Booth would subsequently make a career as a poet, and was a leading suffragist and socialist campaigner.

While studying art in Paris, she met and later married the Polish count Casimir Markievicz. When they returned to settle in Dublin in 1903, they threw themselves into artistic, bohemian life and into radical political circles. In early 20th century Dublin, it was women and women’s politics which would once again draw Markievicz into political activism. She became a prominent member of the radical women’s republican organisation, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), and of Sinn Fein. In 1910 she joined a number of other feminists in an effort to tackle child poverty and hunger in Dublin’s schools. By 1914 they were providing children with between 450 and 600 meals daily, all paid for by subscription.

She joined the Socialist Party of Ireland on its foundation and had become an active supporter of the Irish Women Workers’ Union from 1911. She was heavily involved in workers’ resistance during the Dublin Lockout, a prolonged and bitter labour dispute which consumed Dublin from August 1913 to early 1914. As well as leading marches and standing bail for activists (the Lockout left her very badly in debt), she became one of the most prominent of the many women who organized food and other relief for striking workers and their families. This was a huge task: over a four month period, a voluntary staff of twenty two, most of them women, prepared three thousand breakfasts there each morning, provided clothes for thousands of children and served meals in a special area to breast-feeding mothers.

Markievicz served as an officer in the Irish Citizen Army in the Easter Rising of 1916, one of the 220 members who fought in Easter Week. After the Rising, Markievicz was arrested along with around 80 other women, but she was the only one who was tried as a leader, having been charged with treason. Famously, while fourteen men were executed, she was spared on account of her sex.

After serving time in Ireland and Aylesbury, Markievicz was released under a general amnesty for all remaining Irish prisoners in mid-1917. She returned home in triumph and to a hero’s welcome and promptly threw herself into radical nationalist activism once more. While imprisoned again in early 1918, she stood as a parliamentary candidate for Sinn Fein for the St Patrick’s Division in Dublin, for what was the first election at which some women could vote and stand as candidates. Markievicz famously went on to win her seat, becoming the first women to be elected to the British House of Commons.

While she was in prison she received a letter from Downing Street which invited her to attend the opening of parliament. It began: ‘Dear Sir …. I hope you may find it convenient to be in your place’. She famously never did take her place: as a Sinn Feiner, she was obliged to abstain. Upon her release and return to Ireland in March, 1919, she was named Secretary for Labour in the first Dail Éireann, a position which bridged her commitment to labour and to the fledgling Irish republic. This is significant as it would be another 60 years before another woman would serve in a Cabinet in the Irish Free State or Republic, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn in 1979.

She served several more prison sentences, spent time on the run during the Anglo-Irish War and became a vocal opponent of the Anglo-Irish treaty.She was arrested for the last time in November 1923 while attempting to collect signatures for a petition for the release of republican prisoners and went on hunger strike until she and her fellow prisoners were released. Hard work and often rough conditions took their toll and her health began to fail. In 1927 she was admitted to hospital and, declaring that she was a pauper, she was placed in a public ward where she died.

Markievicz was a pioneering feminist and socialist. Her reputation suffered because of this and because of the more

general tendency to underestimate and overlook women, even women as remarkable as she was. It also suffered as a result of the political and social conservativism that characterised independent Ireland until recent decades. Divorce, birth control and abortion were restricted or banned in the first half of the twentieth century, and Irish feminists have had to work for decades against the forces of Church and State to overturn these decisions. Divorce and birth control bans have been lifted but abortion remains illegal in almost all cases.

One hundred years since the election of Markievicz, Irish voters will once again have the chance to produce a remarkable result at the polls. They will be asked in a referendum if they want to repeal article 40.3.3 – known as the eighth amendment – which gives pregnant women and foetuses equal right to life. A yes vote would remove one of the single most enduring and manifest barriers to women’s rights and would be a fitting tribute to the life of work of the women of Markievicz’s generation.


Professor Senia Paseta is a historian of modern Ireland with a particular interest in the history of education, religious identity formation and political movements and ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She has published on the development of a Catholic university elite in pre-independence Ireland and has also worked on a number of aspects of women's history, including the history of feminism and women's education in Ireland. Her current research is in the history of women and political activism in Britain and Ireland. Her most recent book, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918 (Cambridge, 2013), examines how politically active women worked within broader nationalist and feminist contexts during a volatile period of Irish history. She is now working on a book which considers further forms of women's political activism including Irish unionism, socialism, education and social reform. She is also interested in connections between Irish and British radical politics and is currently writing on the centrality of the Irish Question to the women's suffrage movement across the United Kingdom.