One hundred and fifty years ago, on 4 February 1868, Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was born in to an aristocratic family in Buckingham Gate, London. A privileged, if unremarkable, life at the upper echelons of British society beckoned. Instead, Constance chose a different path – one that would see her become the first female MP ever elected, and an iconic revolutionary.
Constance’s interest in social justice began during childhood at Lissadell, her family’s picturesque estate on Ireland’s north-west coast. Her father, Sir Henry, was notable for his generosity to his tenants during the Irish famine. His example inspired Constance and her sister, the suffragist and trade unionist Eva Gore-Booth, to become politically aware.
Constance’s childhood friend, the Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats, was another early influence who visited Lissadell regularly. Yeats was enchanted by Constance and Eva’s spirited natures and their beauty; they were intrigued by his nationalist politics and artistic vision. After the sisters’ deaths, Yeats famously wrote, The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle. The gazelle was Constance.
Constance married the Romanian count, Casimir Markievicz, in London in 1900 (becoming Countess Markievicz) and gave birth to a daughter, Maeve, the following year. By then, she had trained at London’s Slade School of Fine Art and joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. It was as a suffragist that she undertook one of the most daring escapades of her fledgling political career. In 1908, the government proposed a new bill threatening to bar women from working in pubs. As historian Sonja Tiernan describes it, Constance, Eva and their suffragist comrades devised a successful campaign to crush it. This culminated in the sisters driving a horse-drawn carriage through central Manchester to defeat Winston Churchill, the then-incumbent president of the board of trade, in a key by-election. When a rude man in the crowd demanded to know if Constance could cook she retorted, with a crack of her whip, “Certainly. Can you drive a coach-and-four?”
By the 1918 general election, the first in which women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote, Constance had been sentenced to death for her role in the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. Her sentence was commuted because she was a woman, and she was imprisoned again in 1918 for plotting against the Empire.
She was in jail during the 1918 campaign in Holloway prison where she wrote some of her election speeches
Having the right to run as a candidate was deeply significant to her, as academic and historian Mary McAuliffe explains: “She was in jail during the 1918 campaign in Holloway prison where she wrote some of her election speeches. She talked about the joy of running as a parliamentarian. She understood the importance of her running and having women parliamentarians.”
Constance was the only woman elected in 1918. As a member of Sinn Féin, she would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King and therefore could not take her seat at parliament. She later became the second woman in the world to hold a cabinet position as minister for labour in the new Irish republic.
Lucy Keaveney co-founded the annual Countess Markievicz School in 2011, after attending a panel-style event that had 23 men speaking but just three women. “I think she’s an inspiration. She was activist, she was a suffragette; she was an advocate for equality. She has suffered such misogyny,” Lucy says, referring to the contested rumour that Markievicz shot an unarmed policeman during the Rising, which she describes as “a myth that is being overturned by feminist historians”.
“Markievicz represents a woman who evolved her own ideologies and policies. Sometimes women are written into history because they are the wives, daughters, fiancées of men,” says Mary McAuliffe. “With Markievicz, we have a woman’s life where she went from being a debutante in Queen Victoria’s court to somebody who began to think about women’s rights, the rights of her nation, workers’ rights.
“I think it’s inspirational to look at somebody like her and understand that as we as women develop our ideologies, develop our politics, we can commit our lives to bettering our country, our society, our culture.”
On the centenary of women’s voting rights, 150 years after her birth, the trail blazed by Countess Markievicz – and all rebel women of the suffrage era – continues to light our way.