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Sunday 31 August 2014

Why (as a woman) I detest this document

Published 12/12/2012 | 05:00

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"In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved."

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Stalinist Soviet Union? The Amish Woman's Handbook? No, this is actually Article 41 of the Irish Constitution, where we women are dismissed as little more than comely maidens, encouraged to tend to our menfolk, maintain our households and dance at the crossroads – whenever it is that we might be let out of the house to do the shopping, that is.

Part two of this article is another antediluvian cracker: "The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home." Heavens above, that we might let the ironing slip.

Since these liberating words were penned by De Valera and his friends back in 1937, there has been some attempt to backpedal by assertions that article 41.2.1 should be viewed in the context of the 1930s, that it is not coercive and that there is in fact no constitutional obligation for women to stay in the home.

Oh, the generous gentlemen, no obligation indeed, aren't we lovely girls just so lucky to have had such considerate leaders decide our fate. Begorrah, begosh.

The wording, which was of course most carefully considered and weighted, does appear determined to maintain a gentleman's club society. Ah sure, give them a little pocket money in the guise of child benefit and they'll be happy to raise your children and have a hot dinner waiting for your precious return after a hard day at the office.

You see, in terms of our male-dominated leadership, the word 'woman' was – or perhaps is, as this remains our constitution to this day – interchangeable with the word 'mother' and our primary role is caring. We are here to wipe the noses, prepare the lunchboxes, to Hoover and to iron. And for that we should be rewarded.

And how many women do you think were involved in the drafting of this foundation document for our State? Yes, you've guessed it, not a single woman had a say in the future of her land – unless, of course, you count the one who presumably was on hand to serve the tea and biscuits.

Across the Irish Sea, in Britain in 1921, a full 16 years before our Constitution was penned, the Six Point campaigning group was founded by active Welsh suffragette Lady Rhondda to assert a septet of changes in UK law.

The six original aims evolved into six points of equality for women: legal, political, economic, occupational, moral and social. This was a fight for true equality rather than positive discrimination for women.

They did not want women to get special protection in the home but rather to be afforded the same protection as men. In fact, one of their beliefs was that it was "a fascist and slave conception of woman as being a non-adult person who is very weak and whose place is in the home".

Now call me an old feminist but doesn't that sound progressive? What a shame Dev didn't think to ask any of them what they thought of his rough draft.

Over in America, their Constitution is all about equality. Not equality for women or equality for men, just equality for all.

This is the only article in the constitution dedicated to Gaelic ladies, which is a good or bad thing, depending on where you stand. Good if you're of the opinion that women aren't actually a separate species requiring their own definitions in the constitution; bad if you think we are, and all we get is one feeble article that characterises us as unidimensional and limits our role to the home.

We brush away the condescending sexism of the Constitution by saying how it was written in another age. However, we now live in a time when we have fathers who are single parents and also fathers who are the stay at home parent.

If two separated or divorced parents share the rearing of their children equally, the mother automatically gets all of the child benefit, the father not a penny.

That they are denied basic rights because of their gender seems unthinkable discrimination and is clearly unacceptable.

But, before throwing baby and bathwater out and chaining ourselves to the Dail railings, we should carefully examine it, decide what if any of the constitution is still relevant, what the role of the constitution is, what its purpose might be.

And then tear the whole thing up and start again. All of us. Let's not leave it in the hands of today's De Valera.

Irish Independent Supplement

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