Constance Markievicz: The First Woman MP

The first woman elected to Westminster wasn't Nancy Astor – it was a socialist, feminist, republican and revolutionary named Constance Markievicz.

In her last contribution to the anti-treaty publication, the Nation, in August 1927, published just a month after she died, Constance Markievicz considered the question of Irish citizenship, which should, she wrote, be based on choice, active service and civic conscience. It was also an ideal of a republican, socialist citizenship which she outlined: 

No man who loved their neighbour as themselves could conspire together to conquer in their own greedy interests a weaker neighbour and oppress them, as England conquered and oppressed Ireland for centuries.  No one who loved his neighbour as himself could bear to see people living in squalor and misery, over worked and underfed, while others are idle and have more money that they know how to spend. 

Although often overlooked in mainstream commentaries, Markievicz was the first woman elected to Westminster on 20 December 1918. She stood on a Sinn Féin ticket in an election in which the party swept the Irish constituencies, winning more than sixty seats which had previously been held by the Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party. Markievicz herself defeated the sitting MP William Field in Dublin St. Patrick’s, gaining more than 66 percent of the vote. She would soon become Minister for Labour in the revolutionary Irish government established to support independence from Britain.

As Karen Steele outlines in her essay Markievicz and the politics of memory, Markievicz’s ideal of citizenship repudiated the notion that ‘the involuntary aspects of identity – race, class, gender, religion – should determine Irish citizenship, championing instead tireless devotion to a cause other than that one is ‘one born into’.’ And she deliberately set out to include women in her concept of citizenship.

By 1927, the Irish Free State Government, allied with the Catholic Church, were chipping away at the promises of equality for women as enshrined in the Proclamation of 1916, the Democratic Programme of Government 1919, and the 1922 Constitution. This Markievicz, the weary but determined woman still fighting for the rights of women and the working class, is often lost in the memory of the glamourous Countess, the exotic militant revolutionary. And it’s this Markievicz, the activist, the politician, and the Minister, whose legacies are much more important to us today. 

The Beginnings

Markievicz’s back story is familiar; born into great wealth she is most famous for repudiating her privileged background and becoming a radical, militant revolutionary. An artist, cultural nationalist and suffrage supporter, it is, as Markievicz scholar Lauren Arrington notes, ‘1908 [which is] is widely regarded as a critical year in the development of [her] political identity’. In this year she joined the militant, feminist, separatist, cultural nationalist groups, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) and Sinn Féin.

From 1908 Markievicz wrote and spoke often of the three great movements that inspired her, the labour movement, the women’s movement and the national movement. By 1909 she had become more involved with the socialist James Connolly, the trade unionist Jim Larkin and the labour movement, becoming increasingly interested in those ideologies. In 1911 she spoke at the meeting to establish the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU).  She encouraged women to join the union; she linked the struggle for better wages for the woman worker with the feminist struggle for the vote.  

Her activities in 1916 are perhaps the dominant memory of Markievicz. As a member of the more radical, left-leaning and egalitarian Irish Citizen Army, she fought as a soldier in the Rising. She spent the week as second in command to Michael Mallin at the Royal College of Surgeons. She was the only woman tried by court-martial in the aftermath of the Rising. She was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment because of her gender. She was eventually released under the general amnesty in June 1917, having served fourteen months in Aylesbury Prison.

After her release she immediately threw herself behind Sinn Féin and was elected to its executive board.  She was also elected President of the republican women’s organisation, Cumann na mBan (The Women’s Council – women’s auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers) and played no small part it its radicalisation, both to militant republicanism, and to feminism. In 1918, as the British government sought to introduce conscription into Ireland, she was one of the many activists targeted as a threat. She was arrested in May 1918 on account of her alleged involvement in the so-called ‘German plot’. Markievicz would spend the rest of 1918 in prison and would fight the general election of December 1918 from her prison cell in Holloway jail. 

As soon as the Representation of the People Act passed in early 1918, Cumann na mBan, the militant suffrage group, the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) the IWWU and many other nationalist and suffrage organisations began to organise themselves in case of election. After the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women over the age of 21 to stand as candidates in Parliamentary elections passed, Markievicz was selected by Sinn Féin to run as its candidate in the St Patrick’s division in south inner-city Dublin.

As she was in Holloway Gaol at the time, activist Irishwomen rose to the challenge of conducting her campaign. In accepting her nomination Markievicz declared that ‘freedom has dawned in the East; the light that was lit by the Russian democracy has illuminated central Europe and is flowing westward. Nations are being reborn; people are coming into to their own and Ireland’s day is coming’. Her election campaign was based on the refusal to accept Home Rule, and to beginning the work of creating an Irish Republic based on the ideals and visions of her friend and mentor, James Connolly. In her election address, she wrote that her aim was:

To organise our new Nation on just and equitable lines, avoiding the mistakes other nations have made in allowing the powers of Government, law, force, education, foreign policy, etc be the birth right of the moneyed classes to be used by the, for the further accumulation of wealth and the building up of a class tyranny daily more subtle and more difficult to seize and overthrow.

Her platform was also, as Lauren Arrington wrote, ‘for a republic in which men and woman would be equal, and Ireland would be free to pursue its own destiny’. 

During the election campaign itself the women were very important as canvassers, speakers and of course, in getting the female vote out. In St Patrick’s, the IWFL and Cumann na mBan did their best to present her as a strong, electable candidate. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Meg Connery and Maud Gonne (now released from Holloway) all spoke for her. On platforms they condemned the IPP as the party which had resisted female suffrage, which was only putting forward an old limited vision of Home Rule, while Markievicz ran on a socialist and Sinn Féin platform; should SF get a mandate they could, she said, take the case of Irish freedom to the post-war peace conference, in which the rights of small nations were to be given a platform. Even though Sheehy Skeffington complained that St Patrick’s was the worst managed constituency in Dublin, Markievicz was returned the winner.  

Markievicz MP

Markievicz’s election was important in many ways. She, along with 72 other successful Sinn Fein candidates, finally put paid to the idea that the Irish Parliamentary Party still represented the majority nationalist opinion in Ireland. Like all the other Sinn Fein candidates she pledged to abstain from Westminster. Her election also strengthened the demands for her release, indeed Sinn Féin had run on a campaign of ‘Put Him (or Her) in, to get Him (or her) out.’ In February 1919, over 500 people attended a meeting in Dublin demanding the release of Madame Markievicz MP.

The Irish Women’s Franchise League had wanted to campaign for her release but was told that the most important thing about Markievicz was not the fact that she was a woman prisoner, but that she as a republican prisoner. Despite this insistence, however, the election of the first woman to Westminster was an important moment for Irish women activists. No British woman was elected, that honour fell to an Irish socialist, an abstentionist Sinn Féiner, a revolutionary who had fought for Irish freedom. Despite the emphasis on her republican and revolutionary credentials as a candidate Markievicz had not forgotten her feminist ideals – two days before the election results were actually called, in late December 1918, she wrote to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington that should she win she would like to make ‘St P’s a rallying ground of women and a splendid centre for the constructive work of women. I am full of schemes and ideas’.  

She was finally released from jail and returned to Ireland in March 1919, to a tremendous welcome. As with all the other Sinn Féin TDs she took her seat in the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), becoming the first woman Teachta Dála (MP). In April 1919, she achieved another first, being appointed Minister for Labour, the first woman minister. Of course, the first Dáil had been declared illegal and the first shots of the War of Independence at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919 coincided with its first meeting, Markievicz’s years as Minister for Labour (1919-1922) were fraught and often interrupted by periods in prison. It is perhaps the period least known, written of or understood, of Markievicz’s activism and political history.

For many years her role as Minister was dismissed as of no real consequence to the political life of the first Dáil. Arthur Mitchell in book on Revolutionary Government in Ireland, 1919-1922, said ‘she had little time for these activities (meetings of her ministry) because the Labour Department initially had little to do.’ He added, ‘as Minister for Labour she made no effort to establish standards for employment or anything of the sort’. A damning indictment of her sojourn as Minister! However, as Margaret Ward has written ‘appraisals of her performance as Minister vary widely [and] their diversity seems to be rooted in gender bias’. Seán Ó’Faoláin, her first (and only) male biographer was dismissive of her performance as Minister, saying ‘she was not popular in revolutionary circles’. Her other biographers look at her work during these years with a more sympathetic eye, with Anne Haverty writing that Markievicz was ‘alone in her sympathy with Labour … but … had little power to develop the more radical tendencies of the revolution, try as she might’. 

Minister Markievicz

And she did have radical tendencies. With her allies in the Dáil, TDs Alexander McCabe and Laurence Ginnell, she developed a radical land policy, echoing the Democratic Programme for Government 1919. Markievicz, Ginnell and McCabe planned for the redistribution of land and ranches that had been vacated by British and Anglo-Irish landholders. This was influenced both by the ideologies she had encountered and adopted from her association with Labour and James Connolly prior to the Rising, but also to her own subsequent readings on Marxism and the Russia Revolution. 

Lauren Arrington very persuasively writes about the impact of her reading while in Holloway, from the Workers Dreadnought and other newspapers and pamphlets, and especially the writings of Maxim Litvinov.  His pamphlet The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning had a strong impact on Markievicz. Litvinov described the Bolsheviks’ transfer of ‘all lands hitherto in possession of private landlords, of the Imperial family, of the Church, etc., with the exception of the small peasant and Cossack, to the peasantry at large, to be administered and distributed for use by peasant committees acting in conjunction with local Soviets’.  This echoed, as Arrington writes, Connolly’s The Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915) in which Connolly revisited his discussion of co-operation in Labour in Irish History (1910).  Connolly maintained that George Russell’s co-operative system was a model for Irish industry, since it cut out ‘the gombeen men, middlemen and dealers of one kind or another in the small country towns, [who] sucked the life-blood of the agricultural population around them… They were ever the local wirepullers, and, as such, posed as the representatives of the political thought of Ireland.’ Litvinov’s discussion of Bolshevik land policy, Arrington suggests, gave Markievicz a model for applying Connolly’s principles to Ireland.

The work of current scholars, such as Arrington, Margaret Ward, and Therese Moriarty, who are taking a closer look at the work of Markievicz as Minister demonstrates that, despite what Mitchell recorded, she was an active and engaged minister as far as was possible for a politician in an illegal government, constantly on the run or imprisoned. Her Department of Labour ran a system of conciliation and arbitration, which was a practice well developed in Britain during the war. In this the state or government is recognised as a ‘neutral’ player between the workers and the employers – something that still underpins Ireland’s system of arbitration in the Labour Court today. This National Conciliation Board negotiated several disputes between the unions, workers and employers, including one between the main trade union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and a manufacturer of beads who was underpaying his employers. Where no resolution was forthcoming, Markievicz used a ruse of informing the gathering that the military were coming to raid the building, and so with five minutes to go they settled. 

Markievicz did engage with the unions, indeed she helped in the formation of an Irish union for craft members. Members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Boilermakers and other unions approached her and asked for financial support to establish such a union. She agreed helped the process which would lead to the formation of the Irish Engineering, Shipbuilding and Foundry Workers Trade Union (IES&FTU) – which still exists today as Connect. She pursued her policies where she could, and worked with the unions, including the IWWU, to get a wage increase for workers. In August 1920 she announced a scheme to set up conciliation boards to settle disputes between local councils and their employees, her Ministry was involved in arbitration cases, in settling labour disputes in industrial urban areas, and also in agricultural areas, where there was a constant struggle for agricultural wages – she  helped to settle a number of land disputes.  

However, it does seem that her Department was the least regarded and funded by the government. It only received only £500 in 1920 compared to £900 given to propaganda and Michael Collins, Minster of Finance, who was antagonistic towards her, described the Labour Department as ‘a bloody joke’, complaining to Eamon deValera, President of Dáil Éireann that nobody ever seemed to be in that Ministry.  Yet there is no denying she had radical ideas, she worked hard and had some impact on labour matters. In 1920, for instance, her department established the Dáil Eireann Arbitration Tribunal. As Padraig Yeates notes ‘the Labour Arbitration Tribunals were precursors of the Labour Court and Workplace Relations Commission; an early example of the statist approach to industrial relations. The agreements and reports now lodged in the National Archives from her Department are testimony to its work.’ 

Legacy

The second Dáil was returned unopposed in 1921, and Markievicz was reappointed as Minister for Labour but not given cabinet rank. Kate O’Callaghan, a newly elected woman TD (one of five who had joined Markievicz in the 2nd Dáil) said it was a great ‘regret that the only woman member of the Cabinet would not be given Cabinet rank in the new arrangement’. 

When the Anglo-Irish Truce was declared and a delegation sent to London to negotiate a peace treaty, no senior political woman was included. The Treaty split the country; Markievicz (like all the women TDs) was vehemently anti-Treaty. Despite losing her seat in the June 1922 election, and regaining it in the 1923 election, she was never to take her seat in the Dáil again. In her final years she remained committed to the republican cause, writing pamphlets, making speeches, and joining Fianna Fáil when it was founded in 1926. She also worked among the poor in Dublin, doing what she could to help alleviate the horrendous poverty experienced by people in the tenements. She died in the public hospital of Sir Patrick Dunn’s aged 59 from complications due to peritonitis in 1927. The Irish Free State she had so vehemently opposed refused her a state funeral, but the people of Dublin turned out in their thousands to honour her on her way to Glasnevin to be buried.  

The immediate airbrushing of Markievicz’s radical politics and legacies began soon after her death in 1927.  Seen as an outlier, and badly served by her first biographer, Ó’Faoláin, Markievicz remained a curiously ‘unknown known’ among revolutionary women. Despite several biographies, until recently, most people could only tell you her name and the fact that she fought in 1916. Controversies over whether she shot an unarmed policeman during the Rising seemed to be the most hotly debated consideration of her life.

However, more recently Markievicz is restored to her place as a radical among many such radicals, as an activist woman committed to ideas of freedom, for nation, for women and for class. Her legacy is deservedly still being looked at and analysed. Her position as an activist, a militant woman, a rebel, the first woman MP, the first woman minister, and her radical ideas about equality (of gender and class) are still being researched. She has a place in revolutionary history, in gender history and in labour history, which is still evolving as historians analyse her politics and contributions in their own right, rather than through the gaze of men whose opinion of political women was usually dismissive. Deservedly, she is now being accepted as one of the central figures, male or female, of revolutionary Ireland.