Celebrating the first woman MP – 100 years on

19 July 2018

A picture of Constance Markievicz - the first woman MP - is to adorn the walls of the House of Commons – after it was gifted by the Irish Parliament.

Markievicz (Sinn Fein) and Christabel Pankhurst (Women’s Party) were among 17 women who stood for election in December 1918 – in a poll that saw 8.4 million British and Irish women vote for the first time. Markievicz, standing for Dublin St Patrick’s division, was the only women to be elected.

Markievicz had long been involved in political activism by the time she became an MP, having joined the suffragist opposition to Winston Churchill in the Manchester-North by-election of 1908. She supported the striking workers of the Irish Transport and General Workers union during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, and joined the Irish Citizen Army. Markievicz was one of many women who took part in the 1916 Rising, fighting with the Citizen Army, for which she was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Markievicz’s sentence was commuted on the grounds of her sex, and she was released in 1917. However, she was rearrested and imprisoned the following year for her participation in nationalist activities in Ireland.

She was still imprisoned when elected to the House of Commons, and celebrated the historic win from her cell, where she received a letter from 10 Downing Street inviting her to attend the state opening of parliament, addressed “Dear Sir…”. However, she never took her seat in Westminster.

Markievicz became a dedicated parliamentarian in the Dáil, and was appointed Secretary for Labour and a member of the executive – making her the first woman to hold a ministerial position in Great Britain and Ireland, and the first woman Minister in Western Europe.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, presented the picture to Commons Speaker John Bercow during a reception at Speaker’s House. Describing Markievicz as an extremely well-educated “legendary figure” and member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Irish Speaker said she “decided to put her considerable talents at the disposal of the public… working for the less well off”.

He said she was “an outstanding role model” for young women considering a career in politics.

Mr Bercow said Markievicz “holds a unique place in British and Irish history”, adding that people should not under estimate “just how tough it was” for a woman in politics at that time.

The gift of the Markievicz picture is just one of the ways in which the Houses of the Oireachtas and the UK Parliament are marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland the vote.

The later Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed all women over 21 to stand for Parliament.

Image: UK Parliament/ Jessica Taylor

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