Celebrating the centenary of Countess Markievicz’s appointment as Minister for Labour, 2 April 1919

Posted on April 02, 2019


Today marks the centenary of Countess Markievicz being 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 female Minister in Western Europe.Countess Markievicz was one of the two women who stood for election in Ireland in 1918, the other being Winifred Carney, and she was the only woman elected in Britain or Ireland. Born into a life of privilege, she was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1887. However she chose instead to pursue art, theatre and political causes including women’s suffrage, socialism and Irish republicanism.By 1911 she was a member of Sinn Féin and was arrested while protesting against the visit to Dublin of King George V. Madame de Markievicz, as she sometimes styled herself, supported the striking workers during the 1913 lock-out and organised soup kitchens to feed the poor of Dublin. She fought in the 1916 Rising as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, and was second in command at St. Stephen’s Green. On her release from prison in June 1917 she continued to work with Sinn Féin.She was back in prison at the time of the 1918 election but won over 65% of the votes and became the first woman elected to the House of Commons. 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. Constance Markievicz was released from Holloway Gaol on 10 March 1919 and along with the majority of Sinn Féin TDs elected was absent from the first sitting on 21 January 1919 due to her imprisonment. Before returning to Dublin, she visited Westminster to look at the peg reserved for her in the MPs’ vestibule. It was located next to that of Sir Edward Carson. She went on to become a dedicated Teachta Dála and speaking in the Dáil Éireann Debate on Thursday on 2 Mar 1922, ‘That a decree be passed having for its object the admission of Irish women to the Parliamentary Franchise on the same terms as Irish men,’ which lowered the voting age for women to 21 years on the same terms as men, Markievicz said that:

I rise to support this just measure for women because it is one of  the things that I have worked for wherever I was since I was a young  girl. 
My first realisation of tyranny came from some chance words spoken in favour of woman's suffrage and it raised a question of the tyranny it was intended to prevent
—women voicing their opinions publicly in the ordinary and simple manner of registering their votes at the polling booth.
That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom and soon I got on to the other freedom, freedom to the nation, freedom to the workers.
This question of votes for women, with the bigger thing, freedom for women and opening of the professions to women,
has been one of the things that I have worked for and given my influence and time to procuring all my life whenever I got an opportunity.
I have worked in Ireland, I have even worked in England, to help the women to obtain their freedom.
I would work for it anywhere, as one of the crying wrongs of the world, that women, because of their sex, should be debarred from any position or any right that their brains entitle them a right to hold.

One of the main events of the year marking Countess Markievicz, was the presentation by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl of a portrait of Markievicz to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on the 19 July last year. The Vótáil 100 committee were in attendance for the presentation in the Speaker’s House in Westminster and on that same day we visited the grave of Constance’s sister Eva Gore-Booth in Hampstead Heath. The presentation was the first formal recognition by the House of Commons of Markievicz being elected as the first woman MP, albeit not taking her seat. The picture, which is a photographic reproduction of a 1901 oil painting of Markievicz owned by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, went on public display in Parliament’s ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition until 6 October when it was transferred to Portcullis House for public display.

With the portrait of Countess Markievicz presented by the Ceann Comhairle to Speaker John Bercow, along with members of the Vótail 100 committee at the Speaker's House in Westminster, 18 July 2018

The National Gallery held an exhibition curated by Donal Maguire called ‘Markievicz: Portraits & Propaganda’ which ran from October to February. As part of that exhibition, artist-in-residence Amanda Coogan invited women members of the Oireachtas to join her in a performance piece called ‘ Floats in the Aether’, where we walked from Leinster House to the exhibition space in the National Gallery with women members of the Oireachtas to mark centenary of 1918 election stopping at the images of Constance, and her sister Eva Gore-Booth. The performance aimed to Coogan believes bring groups of women together in the spirit of community, togetherness, witness and expectation to remember and celebrate the work of the Irish suffragettes and Markievicz’s Today marks the centenary of Countess Markievicz being 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 female Minister in Western Europe.historic breach of the glass ceiling.

Amanda Coogan, artist-in-residence at the National Gallery with female Members of the Oireachtas at the 'Markievicz: Portraits & Propaganda' exhibition, 14 December 2018

We also marked the legacy of Markievicz with events on women in politics today. The portrait by artist Noel Murphy entitled ‘A Woman’s Place’, unveiled on International Women’s Day last year, and which now hangs at the steps of the Dáil, contains not only all 53 women members of the Oireachtas, but also a number of representations of Countess Markievicz herself, a nod to her legacy today. During Seachtain na Gaeilge, Máire Geoghegan Quinn gave a lecture in Irish about her time as Minister. She was of course the first woman appointed to cabinet 60 years after Markievicz.We were also delighted that the organisers of the Dublin Marathon chose to work with us as part of the Vótáil 100 programme and use the image of Constance Markievicz on the finishers’ medal for the 2018 race. It was fitting that her achievements and the achievements of all of those who campaigned for universal suffrage, were recognised in one of the country’s leading sporting events, the Dublin Marathon - an event that continues to promote female participation in sport.

Launching the Dublin Marathon medal: Mary Ryan Jennings, Caitriona Jennings, Senator Ivana Bacik, Mary Hickey and Lizzie Lee in front of the statue of Markievicz in Leinster House

We all have to work towards greater equality in Irish society, and the Vótáil 100 programme was as much about commemorating the past as about looking to the future, as the suffragettes and revolutionary generation did in their time. It highlighted the need to elect more women who may become key decision-makers; TDs and Cabinet Ministers. And the lessons from 100 years ago will help us to do that. As we celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland, the key message from Vótáil 100 is that women’s right to vote was not granted easily nor quickly; the campaign for suffrage took many decades to succeed (even partially); and it was 60 years more, after the appointment of Markievicz as Minister for Labour in 1919, before another woman entered an Irish government. In total, only 19 women have served as Government Ministers and only 22% of TDs are women. As Markievicz herself might have said, many more battles need to be fought.

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