Female Badasses in History: Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)
Countess Constance Markievicz was a founding member of the Irish parliament, a fighter for Irish independence, a suffragette, a socialist and one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position in any government. Despite her aristocratic background she was involved in socialist politics in Ireland, smuggled arms for the Irish Republicans, and took part in the Irish Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War following the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Constance Markievicz was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868 in London as the daughter of an Artic explorer and Anglo-Irish landlord. In her youth her father had already been an inspiration for during the famine of 1879-80 he had distributed free food among the peasant on his estate in North-West Ireland. She originally trained to become a painter in London and soon became involved with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society, an organization dedicated to women’s suffrage in the UK. Before settling in Dublin in 1903 she also went to Paris where she met and married her husband Casimir Markievicz, a wealthy count from Poland.
After settling in Dublin, Constance made a name for her as a landscape painter and since she was interested in Gaelic language and culture she became a member of the Gaelic League. The league despite it’s original apolitical intent was an organization that brought together many prominent figure of the Irish nationalist struggle such as the later first president of Ireland Douglas Hyde or John O’Leary. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and the Daughters of Ireland, a revolutionary women’s movement. Her first activities included a cultural campaign of promoting the nationalist Irish cause through theater as well as a suffragette campaign in opposition to the election of Winston Churchill to the British parliament.
With the conflict becoming more heated, Constance founded the Fianna Éireann (Warriors of Ireland), a scout organization that trained boys and girls in the use of firearms. Soon after she was arrested for the first time for speaking at a rally against the visit of King George V to Ireland.
In 1913 the big lockout occurred. The lockout is one of the most intense labor disputes in Irish history starting when Dublin’s public transportation workers went ton strike due to low payment and in protest of British policy in Ireland, eventually culminating in city-wide dispute that involved approximately 20.000 workers and 300 employers. It lasted seven months. Through this event Constance drifted further to the left, joining the socialist Irish Citizen Army, which was dedicated to protecting the workers from the police. She supported the cause by paying for food out of her own pocket and organizing soup kitchens for worker’s children. She also became involved in gun running for the organization.
In 1916 Irish republicans mounted the Easter Uprising, a revolt staged to establish Irish independence while Great Britain was heavily involved in the First World War. Constance took part as an officer and was charged as second-in-command with defending St- Stephen Green, a park in Dublin. Constance and her men held out for six days under heavy British fire and only gave up when they heard that the leader of the uprising Patrick Pearse had surrendered. Under cheers from the crowd she was brought to prison and later pleaded guilty to “disturbing the order of his Majesty’s people”. When the court communted her sentence from death to life-long imprisonment on account of her being a woman, Constance remarked that she “had done what was right” and that she wished they “had done their lot and shot me”. She was released from prison one year later after a general amnesty of the British government for those involved in the uprising.
In 1918 Constance ran for election and became the first woman to be elected to the British parliament but refused to take her seat in protest of British policy towards Ireland. The same year, she also became one of the first women and founding constituents of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament that declared unilateral independence form the United Kingdom. She was again elected to the Dáil in 1921 and from 1919 to 1922 served as Minister for Labor in the Irish cabinet and therefore as the first woman to hold a cabinet position in Ireland and one of the first women worldwide to be a government minister. She left the Irish government in protest of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which established Irish independence but didn’t go far enough for Constance and other Irish republicans. She participated as an officer and fighter in the Irish Civil War but Irish Republican forces lost the conflict in 1923 to the provisional government. She was reelected several times to the Irish parliament but also several times refused to take her seat because of her staunch Republican views. Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at age 59 possibly due to tuberculosis.
Constance Markievicz can be remembered as a prominent female socialist revolutionary that fought for the right of her people for independence and national self-determination. She always stood up for the things she believed and was ready to fight for her causes of Irish independence, socialism, and suffrage with violent means if necessary. She certainly was a woman who was afraid of almost nothing and her war records as well as her prison sentences prove that it was impossible to break her and make her give up the ideals she fought for all her life.