Friday 22 June 2018

'I've been both a working mum and a stay-at-home mum... let's drop the demeaning notions and let women decide their place in society'

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Stock image

Ita O'Kelly

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the ‘women in the home’ clause in our Constitution is the fact that it is still there.

The Government has given an undertaking that it will put the clause to the people in another referendum vote.

It is possible that it could take place alongside the Presidential election in October of this year.

Article 41.2 says that the Irish State “recognises that by her life within the home, a woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

“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”.

Obviously “their duties in the home” is the sting in the tail in this noble rhetoric.

Given the economic reality for most women today, I reckon a drive-by vote or even a show of hands should be enough to repeal Article 41.2 of Éamon de Valera’s outdated notions that constitutionally relegate women to second-class citizenship.

However, when Bunreacht na hÉireann was enacted in 1937, Ireland was a very different place for women than it is now.

Women were largely chained to the kitchen sink by virtue of the ban on women working once they married. This ban was not removed until 1973.

Women were under the thumb of both the State and the Catholic Church.

Until the Family Home Protection Act of 1976, women had no legal entitlement to ownership of the family home.

In 1980, contraception was legalised but was available by prescription only. An amendment in 1985 allowed condoms to be sold over the counter without prescription, but only in pharmacies that were not conscientious objectors. Wow.

It was not until 1995 that the constitutional prohibition of divorce here was removed.

In May of this year the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution prohibiting abortion was repealed.

It is hoped that the new legislation will be enacted by early 2019.

The likelihood is that repealing or replacing the archaic and sexist language contained in Article 41.2 will throw up some interesting discussions and debates. It will likely prove grist to the mill among alpha females about the wider role of women in our society today.

Feminism was supposed to change the system, but has it worked? Or has the template been laid down by high-profile women on six-figure salaries who can do it all because they can – unlike the average woman – afford the hired help?

The answer is yes and no. Women have rights today that previous generations only dreamed about.

Just over 59.5pc of Irish women now participate in the labour force compared to an EU average of 61.4pc. However, the majority of women are in the lower paid ranks and many work part-time.

Crèche and childcare costs run to a second mortgage for many families, bar the very well paid who can afford bilingual nannies.

Most working women now do the job their own fathers once did.

When they return home they then start the job their own mothers once did on the domestic front.

We still have working women patronisingly described as ‘working mums’ who juggle their roles successfully.

We don’t hear a great deal about ‘working dads’ or their juggling skills.

The preposterous term ‘mumpreneur’ still comes up with monotonous regularity, even though it brings most women out in a rash of complete fury.

But perhaps the greatest divide yet to be bridged is between women themselves. Those women who work outside of the home and those who don’t are often at odds with each other.

We still don’t have an adequate description to replace that demeaning term ‘housewife’.

Many working women are positively condescending about those who choose and can afford to remain at home to raise children.

Having been on both sides of the fence, I can testify to the antipathy between the two groups.

When a work contract was unexpectedly not renewed, I found myself at home, and fairly impoverished, with a small toddler.

When I met a former work colleague with my buggy, she questioned why I wasn’t wearing a tracksuit.

Contempt indeed.

By the same token I found standing at the end of a slide in the playground to be dispiriting. I don’t feel even remotely guilty about saying that either.

As I am not the ‘afternoon kids craft party’ type of woman, we walked a lot instead.

We also visited many libraries but had a lot of fun along the way.

It was an isolating experience for me. The issue is that no economic value is put on raising children, therefore it is deemed unimportant by society.

We need to change that narrative and respect women, or men as the case may be, and their choices. However, the facts are that minding your own children is now a luxury.

The only exceptions are that smallish cohort of ‘Range Rover Mummies’ who live a luxe and glossy lifestyle, where nothing as grubby as work comes into the equation.

Most women don’t have a choice as house purchases and rentals today depend on dual income to service the loan or rent.

A woman’s place today is where ever she wants and chooses it to be. We must respect that decision.

We must let women decide whether that is the top table – where the power of the State rests and the big decisions are made – or the kitchen table.

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