Suffragette and Politician
When the Irish revolutionary and suffragette Constance Markievicz, also known as Countess Markievicz, became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons in 1918, she was serving out a sentence in London’s Holloway Prison for anti-British activities. It was not the first time she had been jailed: two years earlier, she had been sentenced to death for participation in the violent 1916 Easter Rising, but was subsequently given life imprisonment instead (because of her gender, she was told). Even if she had not been in prison (and she was later freed, as part of a general amnesty for the uprising’s leaders), she would not have taken her seat as a Member of Parliament. As a member of the Irish political party Sinn Féin, she was committed to Irish independence and would not swear an oath to England’s king. Instead, she and other Sinn Féin members established an alternative parliament in Dublin, setting the stage for the Irish Civil War and a decades-long reckoning with independence.
Long before this, in 1909, Markievicz delivered a lecture entitled ‘Women, Ideals and the Nation’ before the Student’s National Literary Society in Dublin. To the young women in her audience, she preached the ideals of nationhood and self-sacrifice, encouraging her listeners to buy Irish goods, support Irish education and, if necessary, defend Ireland physically. At a time when Irish women were not active in state affairs, Markievicz urged them to come out in support of their native land. An enduringly strong woman unafraid to use a revolver, Markievicz called the notion that women could only serve their country through the home an ‘old idea’, and argued for a larger role in every sector of public life.
Women, Ideals and the Nation 1909
Ireland wants her girls to help her to build up her national life. Their fresh, clean views of life, their young energies, have been long too hidden away and kept separate in their different homes. Bring them out and organise them, and lo! you will find a great new army ready to help the national cause. The old idea that a woman can only serve her nation through her home is gone, so now is the time; on you the responsibility rests. No one can help you but yourselves alone; you must make the world look upon you as citizens first, as women after. For each one of you there is a niche waiting—your place in the nation. Try and find it. It may be as a leader, it may be as a humble follower—perhaps in a political party, perhaps in a party of your own—but it is there, and if you cannot find it for yourself, no one can find it for you.
… To sum up in a few words what I want the Young Ireland women to remember from me. Regard yourselves as Irish, believe in yourselves as Irish, as units of a nation distinct from England, your conqueror, and as determined to maintain your distinctiveness and gain your deliverance. Arm yourselves with weapons to fight your nation’s cause. Arm your souls with noble and free ideas. Arm your minds with the histories and memories of your country and her martyrs, her language, and a knowledge of her arts, and her industries. And if in your day the call should come for your body to arm, do not shirk that either.
May this aspiration towards life and freedom among the women of Ireland bring forth a Joan of Arc to free our nation!