Like most people educated in Britain, I was taught that the Tory ruling class that had opposed votes for women so vehemently nevertheless produced the first woman MP in 1919 — Nancy Astor.
When I was told this I challenged my teacher, arguing that Constance Markievicz was elected as Sinn Fein MP for St Patrick’s Dublin in 1918. I was told she did not count, because she never took her seat in Westminster.
Of course, nobody ever explained why Constance Markievicz refused to take her seat.
Along with 72 other Sinn Fein MPs elected in Irish seats that year, Markievicz refused to recognise the right of Westminster to rule over Ireland.
She viewed her election as part of the powerful campaign to overturn 400 years of British occupation.
Markievicz was a revolutionary socialist and leading figure in the Irish Republican movement during the critical years of the early 20th century.
She was an unlikely revolutionary, born Lady Constance Gore-Booth into a class of aristocratic British landlords determined to keep Ireland firmly under their rule.
But a combination of her personal experience of oppression and her revulsion at contemporary political events led Markievicz away from her background and into the movement for change.
Her constant frustration at the restrictions placed on women in Victorian society led her to join the women’s suffrage movement.
And her anger at the brutality of British imperialism during the Boer War in South Africa led her to define herself as Irish and join Sinn Fein at the age of 40 in 1908.
Markievicz — now married to a Polish count involved in the revival of Gaelic culture — began to see how the struggle for women’s equality had to be connected to the movement for Irish independence. “There can be no free women in an enslaved nation,” she declared.
Markievicz worked closely with James Connolly, a dynamic socialist thinker and leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU).
This experience helped clarify her ideas about how the various causes she championed – especially equality for women and justice for Dublin’s poor — could be linked through the wider struggle for socialism.
Connolly and Markievicz both understood how national liberation could only be fully achieved in Ireland through working class struggle.
Markievicz’s work in helping to organise the ITGWU earned her honorary membership of the union — and at least one severe beating at the hands of the Dublin police, when she helped protect ITGWU activists during the 1913 Dublin lockout.
But the union was starved into submission after Irish and British bosses combined to break its campaign to improve pay and conditions. This strengthened the hand of anti-socialist elements in the national liberation movement.
Nevertheless Markievicz and others still tried to maintain a separate workers’ organisation in that struggle, mindful that otherwise the Irish Republic would only offer limited gains to ordinary people.
Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army was the only armed organisation that allowed women to fight as equals alongside men in the 1916 Easter Rising. Markievicz served as second-in-command throughout the battle at St Stephen’s Green in the centre of Dublin.
Most of the rising’s leaders were executed by the British. Markievicz escaped the death penalty because she was a woman.
Instead she served the first of numerous prison sentences in her struggle to free Ireland. Thousands turned out to greet her return to Dublin from an English jail.
The harsh repression that followed 1916 only served to build sympathy for the Republican cause. A widescale guerilla campaign developed that led to the compromise of an Irish Free State with six counties left under British control.
Markievicz spoke against the acceptance of the Free State, not least because the very bosses who had attacked Dublin’s workers in 1913 supported it wholeheartedly.
Even after the defeat of Republicans in the bloody civil war that followed, Markievicz’s last campaigns were against the repressive measures brought in during the “carnival of reaction” of partition.
Despite the relative weakness of socialists within the Irish movement, and her own conversion to a form of Catholic nationalism, Markievicz continued to campaign for workers’ rights till the bitter end.