Rebel Countess Constance Markiewicz and the Women’s struggle

by C. Desmond Greaves

Labour Monthly, February 1968

ON February 4, 1968, falls the centenary of the birth of the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament. This was not, as is often erroneously said, the sere prophetess of high Toryism, Nancy Astor, but a more vigorous, colourful and refreshing personality – Constance Gore-Booth, later Countess Markievicz,* socialist, feminist and national revolutionary.

She had an astonishing life. Born in London, at 7 Buckingham Gate, her family and entourage wealthy Irish Ascendancy, she was reared at the hereditary ‘big house’, Lissadell on the coast of Co. Sligo. Here she received the education appropriate to her class, riding, hunting, music, painting, dancing and drama, amid that romantic scenery nostalgically recreated by the poet Yeats—a scenery composed of two elements, nature unspoiled where labour brought the peasant no reward, and parkland rendered exotic by use for pure consumption.

The Gore-Booth estate was nevertheless an exception less infrequent in Co. Sligo than in the districts of the great latifundia. Both father and brother were interested in science and exploration and brought a paternalistic attitude to a labour force they were not anxious to lose. They were on the bourgeois fringe of landlordism. Thanks to this, Constance was brought into contact with the co-operative movement founded by Sir Horace Plunkett, and almost simultaneously, with the women’s suffrage movement which appeared in Sligo, with herself leading the way, in the year 1895.

In Paris, where she studied art, she met Count Markiewicz, a Polish country squire talented in the arts, and was married in London in 1900. The couple settled in Dublin, where they worked with the famous figures of the literary renaissance. Her political history is an apt illustration of Marian Ramelson’s** thesis that in subject nations the women secure emancipation in the victory of the national movement. But it needs emphasising that even then they do not do so without a struggle.

The Home Rule Party did not admit women into membership. As a result Maud Gonne with a number of associates established Inini na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) into which Constance Markievicz was inevitably recruited. But she was dissatisfied with spending her energies solely in a feminine auxiliary. Drawing closer to the revolutionaries of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, she was, with their aid and somewhat to the moderate Griffith’s distaste, admitted to membership and elected to the national executive committee of Sinn Fein.

Together with Bulmer Hobson she founded the revolutionary boys’ organisation Na Fianna Eireann some of whose leaders were executed in 1916. She secured the support of James Connolly in an endeavour to open this organisation to girls, and indeed won a victory at the 1912 convention. A postal ballot subsequently reversed the decision much to the disgust of Connolly’s two daughters. Her drive for sex equality was taking her steadily to the left, and it is not surprising that she found it eventually only in the ranks of the Labour movement.

The occasion was the great Transport lock-out of 1913-14 in Dublin, when she threw herself into the struggle with unsurpassed energy, organising the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’s food kitchens and looking after the locked-out workers’ creature comforts in innumerable ways. It was at this time that she joined the Irish Citizen Army, which, while it insisted that all eligible to do so should hold a trade union card, took no account of sex. In her capacity as an officer of that force, and not as a member of the women’s auxiliary of the Volunteers (Cumann na mBan) she took a leading part in the Easter insurrection, being second in command at Stephens Green. She was arrested, tried by court martial, sentenced to death, but reprieved on account of her sex— the reason displeasing her if not the fact.

While in Holloway jail she learned that she had been elected to Parliament as member for Dublin South-west, and chuckled when she received David Lloyd George’s invitation to attend its opening. The twenty-six Sinn Fein Deputies who were not in jail met in Dublin on January 21, 1919, and decided to boycott Westminster and to establish themselves as the constituent assembly of an independent Ireland. Constance Markievicz adhered to these. She was released on March 10, and on April 2 became the first woman Cabinet Minister outside Soviet Russia, Minister for Labour in the Republican Government.

She had thus vindicated the right of women’s access to the highest offices of state, military and political. Undoubtedly, this achievement was facilitated by the existence of the general democratic movement of national liberation. After failing in its military effort to suppress the people’s power in Ireland the British Government engineered a political settlement tolerable to itself, and the era of neo-colonialism in Ireland began. Constance Markievicz took the uncompromisingly Republican side in the struggle that ensued, as did her former followers in Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna Eireann.

It is noticeable that one of the gains of the revolutionary period which was retained was the equality of voting rights for women which was provided for in the many ways retrograde Irish Free State Constitution. Irish women had equal access to the ballot box seven years before their sisters in England, and only two years after the American women won the nineteenth amendment after threequarters of a century of struggle. Today only Switzerland in Western Europe still excludes women from the vote, and according to United Nations figures published in 1966, out of 130 countries women are ineligible for the vote in eight only, a further eight imposing certain restrictions upon them. In the field of access to the highest positions, however, the situation is far less favourable. And in the field of economic equality a revolution has yet to be started.

Countess Markievicz was well aware of the need to bring the women into the trade union movement, and gave help in the early years of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, founded in 1911. Her sister, Eva Gore-Booth, the poet, had founded the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council with a view to combining the proletarian and democratic tasks of working women. Today, despite serious deficiencies in access to employment, and in many countries, discriminatory legal provisions (e.g. in relation to marriage, custody of children, parental control, nationality, property and contract) it is indisputable that the most widespread and glaring inequalities are economic.

Even in Ireland and Britain (not to mention the EEC where to use UNO jargon there is ‘a discrepancy between law and fact’) the long advocated equal remuneration for work of equal value is yet to be achieved. Into this and other matters it is announced in 1968 that the Labour Party will make a ‘sweeping probe’. Such a probe would still be necessary everywhere outside the socialist countries. And except in the socialist countries the political gains won by the women during the national liberation struggle have yet to be extended throughout the economic field.

In this connection reference must be made to neo-colonialism, which carries forward the system of exploitation of the old colonialism under reorganised management, and produces the same economic backwardness and imbalance in forms exaggerated as a result of the deeper crisis of imperialism.

Neo-colonialism is probably the most serious influence holding back the progress of women on a world scale, and assuredly those who suffer from it today will win their freedom in the national movement to throw off that yoke, as in the conditions of earlier days their mothers and grandmothers did before them. In doing so they can be assured of the support of the progressive forces in the imperialist countries, and not least of the women’s organisations of those countries, who are increasingly alive to the problem.

To the great democratic movement which will lead to the final emancipation of half the human race, the memory of Constance Markiewicz should serve as a special inspiration.

* The correct spelling is of course Markiewicz, and so the Count always spelled his name. The Countess, at any rate later in life, used the v, doubtless so that her name should not be mis-pronounced by speakers of English.

** The Petticoat Rebellion, Lawrence & Wishart