Countess Markievicz and Female Legacy - How Do We Think About Our Political Idols?

Countess Markievicz and Female Legacy - How Do We Think About Our Political Idols?

How do we remember our female heroes? We knock the corners off them. The jagged edges and rough surfaces, bad teeth and bad thoughts are all sanded away to leave a smooth, easily digested heroine. 

Countess Constance Markievicz is a difficult woman to knock a corner off. Born the privileged elder daughter of an Anglo-Irish landlord and Arctic explorer, she grew to be a crucial component of the Irish revolutionary movement in the early 20th century. She first became involved in nationalist politics in 1908, joining both Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She took part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin against British occupation, building barricades and fighting in St Stephen’s Green. Following the Irish surrender, she was imprisoned and sentenced to death, later committed to a lifetime of penal servitude, “solely and only on account of her sex”. On hearing this, she told her captors, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” 

After a brief release in 1917, the Countess was again imprisoned in 1918. It was during this stint in jail that Markievicz won the general election for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s for Sinn Féin, making her the first woman elected to the United Kingdom House of Commons. Like the other 72 Sinn Féin MPs, she refused to pledge the oath of allegiance to the King, and never took her seat. Instead she helped form the first Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament). She served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, the second woman to have been appointed a cabinet member in Europe. 

So those are the heroics. What of the corners? Start with the name, ‘Markievicz’; a word that does not flow smoothly off an English-speaking tongue, but rather, forces itself out angles intact. She took the name after her marriage to the Polish Count Casimir Markievicz (although the validity of his claim to aristocracy is fuzzy at best). She arrived to her first meeting of Inghinidhe na hÉireann fresh from a social engagement at Dublin Castle in a satin ball gown and diamond tiara. Rather than being put off by the naturally hostile reaction to her attire, she instead relished in her treatment. She was co-founder of Na Fianna Éireann, a para-military organisation that taught teenage boys how to use firearms – a morally dubious goal. During the Easter Rising, she shot a Dublin police officer, who later died from his wounds, and injured a British soldier. She was estranged from her only daughter with the Count, and instead undertook the role of mother to Casimir’s son from a previous marriage. Casimir himself moved back to Ukraine in 1913 and, although they corresponded for the rest of her life, they never again lived as husband and wife. 

How do we remember our female heroes, when their accomplishments are so inconveniently mixed with human complications? The UK government struggled with this question earlier this year. Naturally they wished to commemorate both the centenary of (limited) women’s suffrage in Britain, and the election of the first female MP. But when the MP in question devoted the last 20 years of her life to the often violent opposition of the UK government, is that commemoration a respectful tribute or a slightly embarrassing insult to her legacy? 

There isn’t an easy answer to that question. We owe it to our heroes, our female heroes in particular, to remember their whole selves, and to acknowledge that this complication is part of the story, not a detractor from it. In the meantime, we could do worse than to follow Constance’s advice to a group of female students in 1909; “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.” 

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