Uncomfortable feminist icon: Constance Markievicz

Sharon Crozier-De Rosa explores the life of problematic feminist figure Constance Markievicz and her place in historical memory as part of our inspirational women series.

When thinking about writing a post for this ‘Inspirational Women’ series, my thoughts immediately strayed to an uncomfortable feminist icon, Constance Markievicz; a woman who is remembered as much for dividing the Irish feminist and nationalist communities as she is for being a feminist trailblazer.

Not surprisingly, Markievicz’s legacy is complex and contested. On the one hand, her memory spearheads initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality. On the other, she is recalled as a woman of beauty but no substance, ‘a snob, fraud, show-off, and murderer’ who dangerously ‘brainwashed’ children into believing that they should kill and die for their country.

It got me thinking – can such an uncomfortable feminist serve as inspiration for feminists today? Or perhaps I should be asking – how has history treated Markievicz to render her such a contentious feminist icon?

Born into a life of privilege as a member of an established Anglo-Irish family in Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland, Markievicz (née Gore-Booth, 1868–1927) learned to ride horses, hunt and shoot. Together with her sisters, Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926) and Mabel Gore-Booth (1874–1955), she set up the Sligo branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society (1896).

While studying art in Paris, Markievicz met her future husband, the Polish artist and writer, Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz. They had a daughter who lived almost exclusively with her grandparents, allowing Markievicz to concentrate increasingly on her activism. She and her husband separated amicably a few years later.

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Studio portrait of Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) in uniform with a gun, circa 1915. Image via National Library Ireland.

She joined the nationalist party, Sinn Féin, and the revolutionary nationalist women’s organisation, Inghinidhe na hĒireann (Daughters of Erin/Ireland). In 1909, she co-founded the militant Fianna na hĒireann, a nationalist version of the Boy Scouts. She was, therefore, responsible for training some of the young men who would later participate in insurrections against the British government. A committed socialist and trade unionist, she joined James Connolly’s militant socialist Irish Citizen Army (ICA). Often flamboyant in dress and style – exemplified by formal portrait photographs she had taken of herself in military uniform just before the 1916 Easter Rising – Markievicz was renowned for her passionate, theatrical approach to public speaking.

In her renowned 1909 lecture, ‘Women, Ideals and the Nation’, Markievicz called on Irish women not to trust the problematic chivalry of men but to arm themselves in defence of their country. She led by example. In 1916, she was Second-in-Command in the ICA’s St Stephen’s Green Garrison during the nationalist uprising.

Her sentence of death over this armed insurrection was commuted to hard labour for life, no doubt on account of her sex. While incarcerated in 1918, she became the first woman elected to British parliament but in line with her party’s policy of absentionism she refused to take her seat. In 1919, she was elected to the first Dáil Ēireann (Irish Parliament). She was appointed the Minister for Labour, thereby taking her place as the first woman minister of any European parliament.

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Séamus Murphy’s 1954 Countess Markievicz Memorial, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, Ireland, June 2015. Photograph by Sharon Crozier-De Rosa.

Markievicz endured more imprisonments during the Anglo-Irish War or Irish War of Independence (1919-1922). During this time she was appointed president of the Cumann na mBan, the militant women’s organisation supporting the armed separatist group, the Irish Volunteers (later Irish Republican Army). Like a substantial number of women in the Cummann na mBan, she opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed at the end of 1921 that was to partition Ireland and that failed to achieve a Republican state.

She was then marked as an enemy of the Free State and was arrested and imprisoned in 1923 while campaigning on behalf of Republican prisoners of the new Free State. In 1926, she was a founding member of future president of the Republic of Ireland, Ēamon de Valéra’s Fianna Fáil political party, winning a seat for the party in the 1927 elections but dying before Fianna Fáil started its term. On her death that year, she was refused the honour of a state funeral but was publicly mourned by many across the political and social spectrum.

Markievicz was revolutionary in her outlook, actions and achievements. Yet, after her death, a number of her male contemporaries chose to trivialise her achievements and disparage her character. For example, in his poem, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’, written in the year that Markievicz died, Irish poet, W. B. Yeats immortalised her and her sister, Eva – a committed suffragist, social worker and labour activist – as beauties whose collective attractiveness was ravaged both by time and wasteful dedication to politics.

One of Ireland’s best-known playwrights and fellow member of the socialist ICA, Sean O’Casey, denigrated her character, labelling her a shrill ‘Catherine wheel of irresponsibility’. She had physical courage, with which ‘she was clothed as with a garment’, he wrote in his 1945 memoir, ‘Drums Under the Window’. However, she did not have the constitution with which to dedicate herself fully to any cause. [This is despite the fact that she endured multiple imprisonments, hunger strikes, and the passing of a death sentence because of her dedication to political ideals, and that she continued to champion her original cause of a socialist republic after the formation of the Free State – dangerously challenging the legitimacy of that new state.]

More recently, male commentators have not even been content to allow her this mantle of bravery. In the lead up to the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, journalist, Kevin Myers resurrected an old allegation that Markievicz had ‘actually cited her gender when begging her captors to spare her life’ during her court martial. He quoted at length from the private memoirs of former judge, William Evelyn Wylie, who was present at Markievicz’s court martial:

Of Countess Markievicz, he wrote: “…she curled up completely. ‘I am only a woman’, she cried, ‘and you cannot shoot a woman. You must not shoot a woman.’ She never stopped moaning, the whole time she was in the courtroom…I think we all felt slightly disgusted…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.”

However, the accuracy of this testimony has been refuted. In the RTĒ Documentary, 1916: The Man Who Lost Ireland aired in April 2006, historian of the Rising, Brian Barton stated that the official record of the court martial ‘records the countess’s behaviour differently’.

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Sculpture by John Coll 2006, of Markievicz, Rathcormick, Sligo, Ireland. Behind Markievicz are five other figures, each representing aspects of her life as an activist working on behalf of the labour movement, the poor, the imprisoned, for women’s rights, and for the nationalist campaign. Photograph by Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, June 2015.

Instead of capitulating, ‘she stood up to the court’. Why the lie, then? Barton’s proffered response was: ‘“I would speculate that it could be something to do with sexual bias. He could have been irritated by her defiances.”’ Perhaps Myers too was irritated by her defiance. Why else – in the face of official evidence to the contrary – would he continue to maintain that this female ‘warrior’ was incapable of the courage of her masculine peers; those men who, like Markievicz, were handed death sentences in the aftermath of the Rising?

Male peers denigrated her after her death, contemporary journalists condemn her and the violent republicanism that she exemplified, and feminists across time have found her to be divisive. She continues to be a disruptive and contentious feminist icon today.

Feminists today lament that of all the revolutionary women in Ireland, Markievicz is remembered. This is not because she is not worthy of being remembered but rather that, in remembering this extraordinary woman, all others who fought in Ireland’s revolutionary wars are ‘forgotten’; eclipsed. Until recently, school, popular, and academic histories have given a perfunctory nod to women’s history of political and violent activism by resurrecting the story of Markievicz and a few other notable female icons. In doing so, they have concealed the rich history of women’s diverse nationalisms and feminisms. Feminist scholars’ attentions have, therefore, been less focused on repairing Markievicz’s memory than on recovering the hidden histories of her more ‘ordinary’ compatriots.

However, this feminist attention to correcting the mis-remembering of Markievicz was not always absent. Markievicz’s noted feminist peers venerated her spirit and devotion to her chosen political causes. Renowned suffragist, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, for example, kicked back at male attempts to corrupt the memory of the woman she considered to be an iconic female revolutionary. In particular, she vocally opposed the 1932 rendering of Markievicz as a womanly philanthropist rather than a disruptive and skilled militant by her former comrade-in-arms and incoming Taoiseach’s (Prime Minister), Ēamon de Valéra (1882-1975).

Markievicz, Sheehy Skeffington affirmed in her article, ‘Constance Markievicz – What She Stood For’ (An Phoblacht, 16 July 1932), was a dedicated politician. The body of serious writing that she left testified to the gravity of her political agenda. More than anything, however, she had been a militant activist – an armed revolutionary. She was ‘a rebel meeting challenge with challenge, giving back blow for blow’. She was:

…above all, a bonny fighter: her militant spirit was that of Queen Maeve or Granuaile, her countrywomen. She had no early Victorian repressions and inhibitions, none of the sheltered femininity of the drawing-room type. Where there was work that appealed to her to do she did it, whether it was carrying up bags of coal to a tenement back-room in the fuel famine of Cosgrave’s late regime or shouldering a gun and sniping at the enemy from the rooftops in Stephen’s Green or in O’Connell Street in 1922.

Sheehy Skeffington, who did not always agree with Markievicz’s political agenda, particularly her temporary prioritising of the nationalist campaign over that for the vote, was unambiguous about her fellow activist’s status as a dedicated, idealistic woman of action. She constructed Markievicz as a heroine, if a sometimes misguided one, in the face of their male contemporaries’ creation of the anti-heroine.

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Mural, ‘Easter Rising’, Corner of Whiterock Road and Glenalina Road, West Belfast. Photograph by Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, June 2015. In this mural, Markievicz strikes the dominant pose in what is essentially a painting full of masculine bodies and masculinised action. Here, this revolutionary woman is part of the essential fabric of the armed Republican movement.

So, what can we make of all these contrasting memorials? Like many of her lesser-known female peers, Markievicz’s memory and reputation was sacrificed up on the altar of the nation-building process. Her memory feeds into a much larger history about the uses and abuses of women and women’s history for the purposes of the masculinised nation. More specifically, her memory serves the purposes of the postcolonial nation-state.

In order to overcome the emasculating of Irish manhood by centuries of conquest at the hands of the ever-virulent British coloniser, the new Irish Free State had to forget the contribution of the nation’s womanhood to the nationalist cause. These women and their actions represented a threat to the recovery of the new postcolonial nation’s masculinity. The nationalist man’s sisters-in-arms were a particularly embarrassing reminder of colonised man’s need for female assistance to fight the imperial oppressor.

Irish nationalists attempted to re-masculinise the new postcolonial nation by invoking a mythological past characterised by an ancient brotherhood of proud and noble warriors. Armed women had little place in this new national imagining. Moreover, those women who picked up a gun for Ireland had already sacrificed respectability by performing an active rather than symbolic role – a passive role integral to nation-building. To remember the actions of these ‘unmanageable revolutionaries’, to use the words of fellow revolutionary and future president of the Irish Republic, Éamon de Valera, threatened the new postcolonial nation’s claims to a level of civilisation and respectability that underscored its right to political autonomy. Markievicz, because of her privileged position, her flamboyance, her revolutionary achievements, could not be ‘forgotten’. Her memory could, however, be tainted and devalued.

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Mural, ‘Cumann na mBan’, Corner of Beechmount Avenue and Falls Road, West Belfast. Photograph by Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, June 2015. Writing translates from the Gaelic: ‘Cumann na mBan. 100 years. No Freedom until Women’s Freedom’.

Of course, this is not the situation for all of the Irish island. Not surprisingly, north of the Irish border, Markievicz’s memory serves a less historical and more current purpose. An uneasy peace reigns in Northern Ireland after a thirty-year conflict – euphemistically termed The Troubles – that saw over 3,500 people were killed and tens of thousands injured. Markievicz was one of a handful of Republican women who made it onto the public murals in northern cities like Belfast and Derry during the Troubles, and beyond. For members of the late twentieth-century Cumann na mBan – female combatants who were later subsumed into the mainstream IRA – the memory of Markievicz, specifically, legitimised the presence of women in the ongoing Republican movement. She served as a symbol not only of the continuity of the republican movement but also of the relevancy of the female revolutionary. There, she has not yet been consigned to the distant past.

Perhaps it was the ongoing potency of Markievicz’s memory that led contemporary journalists, like Kevin Myers, to tear down any claim she might have had to heroic status – in the process tearing down the dangerous myths of revolution that fuelled ongoing violence in the North.

Of course, Markievicz continues to present feminist historians with a number of uncomfortable questions. How do we ‘remember’ female activists like Markievicz who were so heavily complicit in a masculinised nation-building process when that means engaging with intersecting nationalist and feminist politics of the past and present? How inspirational can her memory be to feminists who have eschewed links with those bastions of masculinity or male-led processes: nationalism and militarism? Can we appreciate her truly ground-breaking feminist achievements – being inspired and motivated by her commitment, determination and courage – without judging her for her shortcomings? How open to diverse feminisms are we?


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.29.47 PMSharon Crozier-De Rosa is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wollongong. Her research interests include: emotions, gender and violence; and, gender, nationalism and imperialism. She is currently completing a book, Shame and the Anti-Feminist Backlash: Britain, Ireland and Australia 1890-1920, and co-writing a book on Remembering Women’s Activism which contains a chapter on remembering Constance Markievicz, both for Routledge.

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