In 1919, after the granting of the franchise the previous year to bourgeois and aristocratic women over the age of 30, Tory toff Nancy Astor became the first female member of the House of Commons – inheriting her husband’s seat in a by-election prompted by his ‘elevation’ to the peerage.
That’s what British schoolchildren (give or take some phraseology) have always learnt in their history lessons so it must be true, right? Wrong.
In fact, the first woman MP was elected in December 1918. Her name was Countess Constance Markievicz, and she was a class traitor of the very best kind.
Astor was the first woman to actually take her seat in parliament; but Markievicz proudly upheld Sinn Féin’s policy of not swearing loyalty to the oppressor and its monarch. She couldn’t, she wouldn’t, betray her republican, largely working-class voters.
Born into stolen wealth as the daughter of Anglo-Irish landowners in the rural county of Sligo, Constance Gore-Booth went on to marry a member of the Polish nobility while studying art in Paris.
But in her forties, she abandoned her life of unearned luxury and spent the rest of her days as an Irish republican, a courageous rebel soldier, a political prisoner and an unwavering revolutionary socialist in the mould of her friend and mentor the great James Connolly.
It was this Markievicz of later years who militant trade unionists, women’s rights activists, Irish republicans, socialists, communists, and local housing campaigners came to honour at a recent open-air rally outside the former London site of Holloway prison – where she was serving time as a prisoner of war at the time of her election to parliament a century ago.
The vigil was organised by the southeast region of the TUC (Sertuc) and Islington Trade Union Council, who later jointly hosted a social at an adjacent pub so that participants could eat, be merry and raise a glass to “Our Red Countess”.
At the rally, local trade union speakers stressed Constance’s complete commitment to the Irish working class and to its part in the struggle for national liberation and ‘social justice’, though some seemed predictably coy about using the word ‘socialism’.
Representatives of Irish republicanism – including Sinn Féin’s Joe Dwyer – stressed this woman’s key role, with Connolly, in establishing the Irish Citizen Army in defence of workers being physically attacked during the Dublin lockout of 1913.
She then went on, the audience was reminded, to become the deputy commander of the revolutionary forces at St Stephen’s Green in the centre of the city during the 1916 Easter Rising. Her garrison held out against constant British army attacks for six days, only giving up when they received written orders to surrender from the rebel high command under siege in Dublin’s main post office.
Later, she fought on the anti-treaty side in the civil war.
An activist from Islington Homes for All highlighted the current fight to prevent the local council from turning the now disused Holloway prison site into ‘executive apartments’. Instead, she insisted: “We think it would be appropriate, in memory of Constance Markievicz, to establish a much-needed women’s centre here.
“We also insist that any flats that are built on the site – and we desperately need flats – be genuinely ‘affordable’, by which I mean that rents should never exceed thirty percent of the net average weekly wage for the local area.”
The final contribution was from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) which, somewhat unusually, had been asked by the rally organisers to provide a speaker.
“Constance was above all a revolutionary,” said our speaker, “and she was either in prison or on the run for the last ten years of her life.
“She was also clear – with Connolly – that national liberation could only be the first step. The green flag of a united Irish republic would never ultimately substitute for the red one of socialism.”
We continued: “It is no accident that, when Constance was elected to the Dail [Ireland’s clandestine revolutionary parliament] in 1919, she was the first minister for labour.
“Our party honours this immensely brave comrade. After her death sentence was commuted in 1916, purely on the grounds of her gender, when others were not, she was massively offended and famously said to the British court: ‘I wish you’d have the decency to shoot me.’”
In 2019, there are plenty of ordinary people in the 26-county Irish state who revere Markiewicz’s memory.
But let’s not forget that, when she died in 1927, furious attempts were made by the Dublin government (who had demonised her almost as much as the British had) to downplay her role. Her body was left to lie in state in a cinema, rather than a public place, and soldiers were posted to prevent volleys being fired over her grave.
None of this worked. Some 300,000 people – most of them workers – turned out to line the funeral route and lorryloads of flowers followed her coffin.
There’s also now a statue to Constance in St Stephen’s Green, the park she and her soldiers fought so valiantly to defend at Easter more than a century ago.
Long live the memory of the ‘Red Countess’!