On 14th December 1918, Countess Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) became the first woman to be elected to the UK Parliament, but she did not take her seat. Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives and joint Project Manager for Vote 100 discusses how this came about and whether she would in fact have been eligible to be an MP.
In 1918, the Representation of the People Act allowed some women over the age of 30 to vote in Parliamentary elections for the first time, and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women over the age of 21 to stand as candidates in Parliamentary elections. Constance Markievicz wrote to her sister Eva Gore-Booth:
By the way, shall you stand for Parliament? I wouldn’t mind doing it as a “Shinner” as an election sport, and one does not have to go to Parliament if one wins, but oh! To have to sit there and listen to all that blither. [Quoted in Diana Norman, Terrible Beauty, p188]
Eva didn’t stand, but seventeen women did, including two in Ireland; Winifred Carney unsuccessfully in Belfast Victoria, and Markievicz herself, successfully, in Dublin St Patrick’s. Markievicz was one of 73 Sinn Fein MPs, 47 of whom, including Markievicz, were in prison at the time of the election. Markievicz was not new to jail; she had previously been imprisoned in Dublin after the Easter Rising in 1916, where the record of her fate was as follows:
The accused pleaded not guilty but was found guilty and sentenced to death by being shot. She was recommended to mercy by the Court solely and only on account of her sex. [Quoted in Sean O’Faolin, Constance Markievicz, p157]
She was moved to Aylesbury prison, where she encountered punitive conditions of hard labour and near-starvation before release under amnesty in 1917. She was then interned in Holloway prison from May 1918. As a political prisoner this time, rather than a convict, she was much better treated in Holloway than in Aylesbury. She was allowed her own food, was close to other Sinn Fein women similarly imprisoned, and painted more than 40 watercolours during her stay. She also managed to write an election address from her cell:
It is with great pleasure that I have been accepted as SF candidate for St Patrick’s constituency. As I will not procure my freedom by giving any pledge or undertaking to the enemy, you will probably have to fight without me…. There are many roads to freedom, today we may hope that our road to freedom will be a peaceful and bloodless one; I need hardly assure you that it will be an honourable one. I would never take an oath of allegiance to the power I meant to overthrow… [Quoted in Anne Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p241]
Markievicz received her summons to Parliament while still in prison. As a member of Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat in Parliament. Legend has it that she visited the House of Commons once, in disguise, to see her name on the allocated coatpeg in the Members’ cloakroom. Even though she didn’t take her seat she was still an MP, and wrote shortly before her release from prison in February 1919:
I get such funny letters from the ends of the world and I begin to understand why MPs employ secretaries. [Quoted in Anne Haverty, Constance Markievicz: An Independent Life, p187]
But perhaps overshadowed by the civil war in Ireland and the unusual conditions of her election, is a curious situation little recognised by historians: Markievicz may not have been eligible to take her seat in Parliament in 1918, even if she had tried. She was arguably disqualified on two counts – as someone previously found guilty of treason, and as the wife of a Pole, which made her an alien.
Disqualification #1: The nationality of married women
It might seem strange today, but British women who married non-British men lost their nationality on marriage after the Naturalisation Act 1870, and this didn’t change until 1948. It caused great inconvenience and real problems for many women, some of whom lost jobs in the civil service and pensions, and could even be made stateless. Consequently it was an issue campaigned on by women’s organisations throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, often cited by suffrage campaigners as a reason why women should have the vote. In 1923 Chrystal Macmillan was the only woman to give evidence to a Select Committee on this subject, on behalf of the National Council of Women and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, stating:
It is interesting in going through the various reports of Commissions and Committees which have sat on this question to notice how very little consideration was given to the views of women themselves… Women feel it is a great insult that they should have nationality imposed upon them without their consent. [Report of the Joint Select Committee on the Nationality of Married Women, p.127]
Constance Gore-Booth had married Polish Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz in 1900, at which point she lost her British nationality. She could have regained her British nationality if she had ever become a divorcee or widow and applied for naturalisation, but she didn’t: the couple separated in 1909 and led separate lives thereafter, but didn’t divorce, and the Count outlived her. There is some dispute about whether he was actually a Count or not, but whether or not he was entitled to the title, he was certainly from a Polish class that might be equated with gentry, with extensive landed estates in Ukraine, and a long family history dating back to the 12th century.
So did this situation effectively disqualify her as a Parliamentary candidate? The 1917 edition of Erskine May, the bible of Parliamentary procedure, is clear that an alien – someone neither born nor naturalised as a British citizen – was not eligible to become a Member of Parliament since the Act of Settlement 1700-1. The situation in which someone could be born a British citizen and then lose this citizenship through marriage was not anticipated. However the British authorities certainly considered Constance Markievicz to be Polish, insofar as they tried to have her deported to Poland in November 1919, without success. And in fact in 1922 she successfully applied for a Polish passport (having refused on principle to apply for a British one) in order to travel to the USA.
Disqualification #2: Guilty of treason
‘A person attainted, or adjudged guilty, of treason or felony, and not having endured the punishment to which he was adjudged or received a pardon, is disqualified for membership of either House of Parliament.’ [Erskine May, 12th edition, 1917]
It would seem from this that Markievicz being held in prison at the time of the election in 1918 was not itself a problem, as she was interned as a political prisoner rather than having committed a crime. However her previous spell in prison should indeed have disqualified her, along with a number of other Sinn Fein MPs in the same situation; Markievicz had been found guilty of treason, and had not endured the punishment or received a pardon.
Why wasn’t her candidacy challenged?
Having ascertained her eligibility was dubious at best, the question that now arises is why was she accepted as a candidate? One might first wonder why the returning officer in the constituency, Dublin St. Patrick’s, accepted her candidacy. This at least seems fairly straightforward: it is not the job of returning officers to determine if candidates are qualified or not, only to confirm that their nomination is valid. There is a long history of disqualified candidates standing and being elected: Daniel O’Connell was elected when unable to take his seat as a Roman Catholic, before the Catholic Emancipation Act 1829. Tony Benn was disqualified to be an MP on becoming Viscount Stansgate in 1960, but stood and was elected in 1961, before he was able to disclaim his peerage under the Peerages Act 1963.
So providing Markievicz’s nomination as candidate was valid, that is to say with appropriate nominees and fees, the returning officer in Dublin St. Patrick’s simply did his job by putting her on the ballot paper. It is interesting to speculate that had she repeatedly been returned by her electors, like O’Connell and Benn, and refused on grounds of being an alien, maybe the issue of married women losing their nationality would have been forced onto the political agenda many years before 1948.
One might also wonder if the second placed candidate could have challenged the result. An opponent, or an elector, could petition to have an election result overturned and take their case to the courts. Her main opponent, the incumbent MP William Field, may have felt it would a waste of time to challenge, given the Sinn Fein landslide – he had been defeated by 7835 votes to 3742 so the result was not particularly close; perhaps he just thought that the electorate had spoken. Also it would have been expensive and time-consuming to contest the decision in court. Finally, he may have feared for his life – a civil war was raging in Ireland, after all. Challenging the result might have not seemed a wise decision given the political reality, especially as a number of other Sinn Fein MPs were also affected by the conviction for treason issue.
Constance Markievicz: her significance as the first woman MP
Despite these disqualifications and the fact she did not take her seat, there is no doubt that Constance Markievicz was successfully elected MP for Dublin St Patrick’s. Her name is recorded in the Parliamentary Paper which lists the return of MPs for the 1918 election, where it gives her official date of return as 4th January 1919 and describes her: ‘Constance de Markievicz, of 143 Leinster Road, Rathmines, Dublin’.
The significance of this achievement should not be overlooked just because she did not take her seat. Markievicz was elected in a Parliamentary general election in her own right. This happened less than a year after any women were granted the vote, and only weeks after women were permitted to become MPs. Unlike the next three female MPs (Nancy Astor, Margaret Wintringham and Mabel Philipson) she had no advantage of a husband who was previously MP in her seat. She also faced prejudice against women candidates, present in Ireland just as in the rest of the UK at the time. No other woman was elected as early as December 1918: unsuccessful candidates included prominent suffrage campaigners including Christabel Pankhurst.
Finally, Markievicz did take her seat to represent her constituents as a member of the first Dáil Éireann. Not only that, she became secretary for labour in 1919, making her the first female cabinet minister in Europe. She held this post until 1922, albeit interrupted by further imprisonments. For this and all her other achievements, she deserves a proper share of recognition for her place in the history of women and Parliament.
This blogpost was inspired by a comment from Bethany Stanton in her dissertation, ‘The impact of the 1918 General Election on the Women’s Party’, submitted for the History of Parliament annual dissertation competition. I am also indebted to Oonagh Gay, Kathryn Rix, Paul Seaward and Melanie Unwin for subsequent discussion and suggestions.
- M. Page Baldwin, ‘Subject to Empire: Married Women and the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act‘ Journal of British Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, At Home in the Empire (Oct., 2001), pp. 522-556.
- Erskine May’s Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. 24th edition, 2011, p.33.
- Oonagh Gay, Disqualification for membership of the House of Commons (House of Commons Library Standard Note: SN/PC/3221, 2004)
- Anne Haverty, Constance Markievicz: An Independent Life (Pandora, 1988)
- Anne Marreco, The Rebel Countess: the Life and Times of Constance Markievicz (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967)
- Joe McGowan (ed), Constance Markievicz: the People’s Countess (Constance Markievicz Millennium Committee, 2003)
- Diana Norman, Terrible Beauty: A Life of Constance Markievicz (Hodder & Staughton, 1987)
- Sean O’Faolin, Constance Markievicz (1934; Cresset Women’s Voices, 1987)
- Pašeta, ‘Markievicz , Constance Georgine, Countess Markievicz in the Polish nobility (1868–1927)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2013 [accessed 2 Dec 2015]
- Report by the Joint Select Committee on the nationality of married women, HC 115 (1923)
- Return of the names of every member returned to serve in the thirty-first Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, appointed to meet the 4th day of February 1919, and dissolved the 26th day of October 1922. HC 97 (1923).