One of the great ironies of British suffrage history is that the first woman elected to Westminster, Constance Markievicz, was in fact Irish. Markievicz stood as a Sinn Fein candidate for Dublin’s St Patrick’s Division in 1918, winning her seat by a majority of just over 4000. Like all her fellow Sinn Fein MPs, she refused to take her seat, pledging allegiance instead to a native Irish parliament, Dail Eireann, established in the same year. Constance Markievicz’s life and times have been well chronicled by a number of biographers and she remains one of the best known Irish female activists of her generation. She is, however, best known for her role in the Easter Rising of 1916 and not as an early suffragist and feminist. The extraordinary context in which she was elected, as well as the way in which she prioritised her own political activity have meant that her electoral triumph in 1918 has been overshadowed by the other remarkable political events which shaped Ireland in the early twentieth-century.
Born Constance Gore-Booth into a wealthy unionist Anglo-Irish family, she and her favourite sister, Eva, had a conventional upbringing which reflected the values and expectations of their class. Both, however, rebelled against their upbringing, first by founding a women’s suffrage society in their native Sligo in the mid 1890s and then by becoming involved in further political activity. Eva Gore-Booth famously went on to become very prominent in the English suffrage and women’s trades unions movements, while her sister was drawn to radical Irish politics. Both women were also deeply artistic. Constance Markievicz studied art in London and Paris where she met Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, a Pole and fellow art student, whom she married in 1900. They became deeply involved in artistic Dublin life when they moved there in 1903, but she became increasingly interested in nationalist politics and her conversion to Irish nationalism occurred in about 1908 when she joined Sinn Fein and Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland).
By 1911 she had become an executive member of Sinn Fein and was soon to become an honorary treasurer of the Irish Citizen Army, an organisation which had been founded as a self-defence group by striking workers in 1913 before evolving into a radical republican and socialist paramilitary organisation. She remained committed to women’s suffrage, but support for it and advanced nationalism was difficult, largely because in common with many republican women, no matter how strong their feminism, she would not advocate appealing to what she believed was an alien Westminster parliament for this political concession. Though Sinn Fein was generally progressive in terms of women’s suffrage it nevertheless maintained that ‘the rights of Irishwomen are in Ireland, and must be won in Ireland, not in England or any foreign country’. For these separatist feminists, agitation for votes for women in Ireland inferred claiming British citizenship and was thus considered to be inconsistent with Irish separatism. Markievicz was one of the many women who contributed to a lively and often passionate debate about this issue in the radical press, especially at key moments in the Irish suffrage campaign.
Like many of her friends Markievicz effectively fudged this tricky issue by offering ‘silent support’ for the Irish suffrage movement, while publicly remaining critical of it. She never joined the Irishwomen’s Franchise League (IWFL), but she took the part of Joan of Arc in its tableaux vivants, went to its meetings and she spoke at a mass rally held to protest against the exclusion of woman suffrage from the Home Rule Bill in 1912. She always spoke as a Sinn Feiner first, but many of her Sinn Fein colleagues disagreed with any involvement in the women’s suffrage campaign while Ireland remained ‘unfree’. The question of women’s suffrage faded very much into the background as Ireland plunged into political chaos from 1914. Markievicz was at the heart of this. She was second-in-command of a troop of Citizen Army combatants during the Easter Rising of 1916, and only escaped execution in its aftermath when her death sentence was commuted on account of her sex. She threw herself behind Sinn Fein, was rearrested and in 1918 was one of only two women who stood as Sinn Fein candidates in the general election. Despite all her earlier arguments with suffragists, it was members of the IWFL who effectively managed the Markievicz campaign, drawing on feminist and republican support. Most feminists agreed that her campaign was badly managed, largely because neither female Sinn Fein candidate had had adequate support from her party. Nevertheless, she was elected, and took up a cabinet post in the first Dail Eireann.
Feminists had fought very hard for political equality within Sinn Fein and Markievicz’s election in some ways represented their mixed results. By the standards of the day her candidature and election were extraordinary, but women on the whole were marginalised and their roles as politicians rather than political auxiliaries were not taken very seriously. Markievicz herself was high profile, largely through her role in the Rising and her own theatrical nature, but she was not in the same intellectual or organisational league as some of the Sinn Fein women who were not selected. She was the first of many symbolic women, brought into the political fold for short-term gain rather than through the expectation that they would play a significant role in party or parliamentary life. Yet, despite all this, hers was a feminist victory in that the forces which had been organising for many years in expectation of women’s suffrage were well prepared to step in when the first women prepared to stand. Many of these campaigners believed that the two liberating forces of nationalism and feminism would combine to produce a revolution in Irish social and political mores. The reality of life in the Irish Free State was to prove them wrong, but in 1918 the victories of both Markievicz and Sinn Fein suggested that women’s liberation was at last in sight.
Senia Paseta is an Irish historian at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She is currently writing a history of women and politics in Ireland, 1900-1918.