The first female MPs: Countess Markievicz and Viscountess Astor
Next year marks the centenary of the General Election of December 1918. The General Election of 1918 is significant in a wide variety of ways, not least with respect to women. It was the first election in which women could seek election to the House of Commons and it was the first at which women had the vote, admittedly not on the same basis as men. Only women over thirty were given the vote. Women would have to wait until 1928 to enjoy the franchise on same terms as men.
The 1918 General Election produced only 17 female parliamentary candidates: one Conservative, four Labour candidates, four Liberals and eight ‘others’. Only one was successful, one of the ‘others’: the Countess Markievicz of Sinn Féin, who was thus the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons.
Born Constance Gore-Booth in London, she was a daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, a Co. Sligo landowner. A society beauty, by the standards of her era she became an unusually emancipated young woman. She smoked heavily, chewed gum, carried a revolver and kept a pet snake in her hair. She studied art at the Slade School in London and in Paris where she met Casimir Markievicz, a dashing Polish art student whom she married in 1900. They had one daughter but the marriage was not a success. In 1913 Casimir Markievicz departed for Ukraine, never to return.
Countess Markievicz was attracted to the emerging Sinn Féin movement although she disagreed with Arthur Griffith, the party’s founder, on a number of points, not least his pacifism and his hostility to female suffrage. She also became involved with Inghinidhe na hĒireann (‘Daughers of Ireland’), an advanced nationalist organisation for women founded by Maud Gonne which predated the formation of Sinn Féin and which was largely absorbed into Cumann na mBan in November 1913.
At the suggestion of Bulmer Hobson, the Vice-President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Countess Markievicz set up the Fianna, a boy-scout militia, in 1909. A friend of James Connolly, during the Dublin lockout of 1913 she ran a soup kitchen in Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. She also became an officer in the Irish Citizen Army. In 1911 she established a socialist commune in Raheny, Co. Dublin. It lasted two months and lost her £200, then a fairly substantial amount of money.
She participated in the 1916 rebellion, serving as second-in-command to Michael Mallin, in St Stephen’s Green. At her court martial she continuously protested, “I am only a woman and you cannot shoot a woman. You must not shoot a woman.”
Marckievicz expected mercy but had shown no mercy to Constable Michael Lahiff, an unarmed member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, whom she had shot in the back of the head in St Stephen’s Green. According to W. E. Wylie KC, the prosecutor, she never stopped moaning the whole time she was in the courtroom. Wylie recalled: “She had been preaching to a lot of silly boys, death and glory, die for your country, etc., and yet she was literally crawling. I won’t say any more, it revolts me still.”
She was sentenced to death for her role in the rebellion but the sentence was commuted. Shortly afterwards she converted to Roman Catholicism. Released from prison in 1917, she became honorary president of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, which had been set up as a sister organisation to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1911.
At the General Election of 1918 Countess Markievicz was selected by Sinn Féin to contest the St Patrick’s Division of Dublin and was successful, comprehensively defeating William Field of the Irish Parliamentary Party who had represented the constituency continuously since 1892.
However Countess Markievicz chose not to take her seat in the House of Commons and instead opted for attending Dáil Ēireann, the illegal Sinn Féin assembly consisting of the 73 MPs elected to the House of Commons in 1918.
She was Minister of Labour in both the First and Second Dáil but the position only held Cabinet rank in the First Dáil. She strenuously opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was hostile to the establishment and institutions of the Irish Free State.
Countess Markievicz proclaimed: “I have seen the star and am not going to follow a flashing will o’ the wisp.”
She became a member of the first executive of the Fianna Fáil party (1926-7). She was an abstentionist member of the Third Dáil and conducted a highly individual campaign to secure election to the Fourth Dáil. However, she died a month later in July 1927 in a public ward of a Dublin Hospital. .
Although Nancy Astor was the second woman to be elected to the House of Commons, she was the first to take her seat. An American, she was born in Danville, Virginia.
After an unhappy marriage, she came to live in the United Kingdom and married Waldorf Astor in 1906. Four years later Waldorf Astor became a Conservative MP. When he succeeded to his father’s peerage in 1919, she was selected to contest the seat he had vacated at the subsequent by-election and she won.
She took her seat on 1 December 1919. Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s long-term mistress and a woman seriously political to her finger tips, recorded the occasion in her diary: “It was really a thrilling moment, not from a personal point of view, but from the fact that after all these hundreds of years, this was the first time a woman had set foot upon that floor to represent the people … I had a lump in my throat…”
Lady Astor proved to be an outspoken MP, expressing her views freely and frankly. She did not suffer fools gladly and did little to endear herself to many of her elderly and stuffier parliamentary colleagues.
She took a keen interest in social problems, especially those relating to women, young people and temperance. Although the Astors’ home at Cliveden became synonymous with appeasement in the 1930s, Lady Astor most emphatically was not a Nazi sympathiser. She refused to meet Hitler and featured on a Nazi blacklist.