Here’s a typical pub quiz ‘trick’ question: who was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons? The usual answer – I am told by quiz aficionados – is ‘Nancy Astor’.
No! Lady Astor was the first woman to take her seat at Westminster. The first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz the first female past the post in December 1918, a century ago today, sitting for a Sinn Fein Dublin constituency. As she was abstentionist, she didn’t take her seat. And she was in Holloway prison at the time – for sedition – so she wouldn’t have been able to attend anyway.
Constance howled with laughter when she received a letter from 10 Downing Street, beginning, ‘Dear Sir – I hope you may find it convenient to be in your place for the King’s opening of Parliament...’ She’d have been more inclined to take her Mauser to George V than her deferential place. The studio portrait, above, taken in 1915, exemplifies her fighting spirit.
She was born Gore-Booth into an Anglo-Irish family (Casimir Markievicz was her Polish husband – quite a good artist), and one of a number of English or Anglo-Irish women of her time who embraced Irish rebel nationalism, and the cultural context that went with it, Roman Catholicism. She was converted by watching Easter 1916 insurgents kneel down and recite the Rosary between interludes of firing on the British army.
Socialist, Bolshevik and feminist – as well as ace horsewoman, accomplished gardener and artist herself – Constance remained an ‘unorthodox’ but devout Catholic, holding the Rosary when she died aged 59. The centenary of her electoral success falls on December 14. For militant feminists today, the catch-cry ‘Get your Rosaries off our ovaries’ is somewhat paradoxical when it comes to the true first feminist of Westminster.
Dearest Old Darling, Mary Kenny’s play about Constance Markievicz, was at the Irish Cultural Centre, London, on November 30 in 2018.