19 Jul 2018, 11.20
A picture of the first woman elected to the House of Commons, Constance Markievicz, has been gifted to the UK Parliament by the Irish Parliament (Houses of the Oireachtas).
At an event in the UK Parliament on Wednesday, July 18, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, accepted the picture from Seán Ó Fearghaíl, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann. The picture, which is a photographic reproduction of a 1901 oil painting of Markievicz owned by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, will go on public display in Parliament’s landmark ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition until 6 October when it will be transferred to Portcullis House for public display.
The gifting of the Markievicz picture is just one of the ways in which the Houses of the Oireachtas and the UK Parliament are marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave some women in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland the vote. It was followed later by the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 which allowed all women over 21 to stand for Parliament.
In the December 1918 general election 8.4 million British and Irish women were eligible to vote for the first time and 17 women stood for election including Constance Markievicz (Sinn Féin) and Christabel Pankhurst (Women’s Party). Constance Markievicz, standing for Dublin St Patrick's division, was the only woman to be elected.
Markievicz long had been involved in political activism by the time she was elected, having earlier joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a nationalist women’s organisation. In 1908 she joined the suffragist opposition to Winston Churchill in the Manchester-North by-election. She supported the striking workers of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, and joined the Irish Citizen’s Army. Markievicz was one of many women who took part in the 1916 Rising, fighting with the Citizen Army, for which she was imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Markievicz’s sentence was commuted on the grounds of her sex, and she was released in 1917. However, she was rearrested and imprisoned the following year for her participation in nationalist activities in Ireland. 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.
Markievicz became a dedicated parliamentarian in the Dáil. She was 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.
Markievicz spoke about her suffrage activities in Dáil Éireann on 22 March 1922:
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.
Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD, Ceann Comhairle(Speaker) of Dáil Éireann, said:
“I am honoured to present this portrait of Constance Markievicz to Speaker Bercow today on behalf of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Ireland is understandably very proud of Constance Markievicz, who amongst her many achievements, was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, although she refused to take her seat, instead sitting in the first Dáil and being the first woman elected to the Irish parliament. I think it is very appropriate that a portrait of Countess Markievicz should hang in Westminster to mark the 100th anniversary of her election to this honoured House and that it should be gifted from the House in which she took her seat. This gifting also illustrates our shared historical and suffrage heritage and underlines the sometimes troubled, but overwhelmingly very positive links between our two countries.”
John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, said:
“It is fitting that in the centenary year of the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, we mark the contribution of Constance Markievicz who, as the first woman elected to Parliament, holds a unique place in British and Irish history. The picture of Markievicz will now join the Parliamentary Art Collection: a testament to the past, and an inspiration to future generations.”
Alison McGovern MP, Chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art said:
“The Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art is committed to recognising those who have influenced Parliament and contributed to its development in a notable way and it has been the work of this Committee to address the representation of women in the Parliamentary Art Collection. The picture of Constance Markievicz is a valuable record of the first woman elected to the House of Commons.”
Conor McGinn MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ireland and the Irish in Britain:
“Constance Markievicz was a formidable figure whose courage and determination to achieve equal rights and Irish freedom saw her become the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons. It is a sign of the strength and depth of today’s relations between Britain and Ireland - and our democratic institutions - that her contribution to our shared and complicated history is marked in the Parliament to which she was elected but never attended, and that her legacy and contribution is remembered a century after women’s suffrage and the historic 1918 election.”
Notes for editors:
The Parliamentary Art Collection is a unique and valuable educational resource of over 8,500 artworks which document and illustrate the history of Parliament over the centuries, as well as explaining the function and activities of Parliament today. The Collection is owned jointly by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and the vast majority of artworks are displayed throughout the buildings of the Parliamentary Estate.
The original oil painting of Constance Markievicz by Boleslaw von Szankowski is in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
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