'When I got engaged a nun told me I would have to be let go' - former Loreto Foxrock teacher on 'shock' of marriage bar
The 'marriage bar' that forced female public servants out of the workforce once they married has resulted in a stark inequity for women on pension entitlements. Our reporter spoke to the generation whose potential was squandered
Susie Hall remembers the occasion like it was yesterday. It was 1971, and she had just got engaged and could hardly wait to show off her engagement ring to her teacher colleagues at the fee-paying girls school, Loreto Foxrock, in south Dublin.
But while many of her friends on staff were thrilled with her news, a senior member - a nun - took a different view. She told the young Dubliner, who had been working there for the previous two years, that she would "have to be let go". Forty six years later and the memory of that moment is still painful.
"It was such a shock," she says. "I went in that day with no expectation that it would happen. We knew about the marriage bar in the civil service, but this was the public service and there were older, married women who were on the staff."
Her protests fell on deaf ears and she was forced into retirement just as her career was getting under way. "We had just taken out a mortgage on a house, fully expecting both of us to pay for it," she says, "but it was no use - they wouldn't budge."
"It was extraordinary, looking back, because they were discriminating against me about something that might happen - namely, having children. And that's what the marriage bar was all about."
The injustice of the era is captured vividly. "I remember a noticeboard in the school where the different pay rates between men and women were proudly listed and, of course, men were so much better paid."
The marriage bar - which had been introduced by Éamon de Valera's government in 1932 and appeared to bear the imprimatur of the future archbishop of Dublin, the all-powerful John Charles McQuaid, a close friend of the Taoiseach - was eventually abolished in 1973, the year Ireland joined the EEC. But thousands of women like Susie Hall were affected, including many who worked in banks and hospitals.
It had been the bane of career-minded women for decades, not least primary school teachers - although the bar was lifted for them in 1958. One hundred-year-old Maureen Cronin - a recent recipient of a 'Hidden Hearing Heroes' national award - was among those teachers who fought to have the bar lifted.
"I went back a week after (getting married) into the school and I was still Maureen O'Carroll, there was no such person as Maureen Cronin, she didn't exist," she recently told the Clare Champion.
"Just because you had a different name, you couldn't teach. The inspectors came, passed my room and went into the others, I didn't exist. I had no brother, so my parents left me the farm, I had money, so I stayed on to last this thing out."
She continued to work - without pay - for almost a year until she was eventually dismissed from her post. "They were alerted in Dublin about this, I don't remember if it was a garda or who it was who came out to me, it was a long time ago. But they said, 'I'm dismissing you from this moment, if you are here tomorrow, you will be removed'."
But other professions - including that of secondary school teacher in certain religious-run schools - remained under the jurisdiction of the ban for a further 15 years.
Among those affected was Connie Doody, co-founder of the award-winning Lir Chocolates. She had been employed in the now defunct Department of Posts. "It was very well paid, I was delighted. I got married at 23 and had to retire; it was the way that it happened in those days.
"Looking back, it seems archaic, but that was the reality. The idea was that men had to have jobs, so women could be dispensed with. We didn't question things much, there were no surprises. It was the deal that you had when you went in."
But questions are being asked today about whether or not people like Susie Hall and Connie Doody should be retrospectively compensated. There is a growing movement - led by organisations like the National Women's Council of Ireland - for those women who were affected by the marriage bar to have their full pension entitlements restored. All too often, the years of service carried out by women in the civil service - and in other industries that took their cues from it - were seen as worthless when calculating pension entitlements.
One of them is Mary Walsh, of Cahirciveen, Co Kerry. She joined the Department of Justice in 1967, but would be made redundant when she became engaged in 1971. It was a decision, she believes, that represented how poorly women were treated in Ireland in the decades right up to the 1970s.
"The marriage bar was engrained in the culture and it just became accepted," she says. "But what it did was to deny generations of women the opportunity to work at the prime of their lives. I was just 21 when I got engaged and I really wanted to be able to continue to work, but I couldn't do it. And there weren't enough people who were making a fuss about it, either. The women's liberation movement was really growing in Ireland back then, but it seemed that there were other issues they were more concerned about."
Besides being denied the right to earn a salary, Mary says the remnants of those days before the act was repealed are being felt by her when she collects her pension every single week. "I've worked out that I'm getting €35 per week less in the pension than I should be. That's very hard to stomach and there doesn't seem to be enough political will to change it or to make the money available.
"€35 per week may not seem like much, but it is to me, and if you work it out over the course of 10 years, say, that's €18,200 that I'm not being paid. And there are thousands of women out there in the exact same situation."
Mary Walsh was part of a delegation of women from her generation who were galvanised by the National Women's Council to lobby Dáil members on their cause. "It's hard not to feel as though we have been forgotten," she says.
Leo Varadkar's much touted 'Republic of Opportunity' doesn't seem to apply to older people, she reasons.
And changes to the pension eligibility rules in 2012, introduced by then minister Joan Burton, have had a detrimental effect on women like her. "Back then, I was getting about €5 per week less than some of my friends, but that amount has jumped up to €35. Joan Burton said she wanted to make the system fairer, but it's done the exact opposite - we're worse off."
In 2012, some 36,000 people had their state pensions cut and senior citizens charity Age Action has estimated that 62pc of those are women.
They had been disproportionately affected because the ramifications of the homemaker scheme, introduced in 1994. Since then, the practicalities of childrearing have been taken into consideration regarding the qualifying conditions for the pension.
The homemaker scheme disregards years spent working at home while caring on a full-time basis for a child up to 12 years, and a maximum of 20 years can be disregarded that way. What it means in practice is for those who spend up to 20 years raising their children full-time, those years will not be added to the number of years you worked in total, and your PRSI contribution total will not be divided by them, leaving you with a higher average of contributions.
It sounds reasonable until you consider that anyone who raised their children before 1994 is not taken into account. And it was prior to 1994 when Mary Walsh raised her five children.
"People say things changed when the marriage bar was lifted in 1973, but there has still been discrimination and women bear the brunt of it.
"The problem is politicians like her simply don't have to live on €200 or so a week."
Last month, Burton defended her decision to make the changes in Budget 2012, but said she had "regrets" about the cuts made during the austerity years: "Just as you will recall during the crisis, public servants took reductions, people on social welfare payments took reductions."
She added that minister Paschal Donohoe could remedy the situation "if he has the money, in one fell swoop, or instead over time".
It's estimated that it would cost the State €230m to repay those affected for the years of 'underpayment'. It remains to be seen if there's a willingness to find such money within the public spending budget.
Others are hopeful that women who suffered the marriage bar between 1932 and 1973 will receive reparations, but there appears to be little political will to address an issue that some would like to consign to the pages of history.
The abolition of the bar had a seismic effect on women in the workforce. According to historian Diarmaid Ferriter - author of Ambigious Republic: Ireland in the 1970s - its impact can't be understated: "In 1966, only 5pc of married women in Ireland had jobs, whereas in 2006, this number had risen to over 50pc, so it's clear that this one regulatory change had an immense and lasting effect on society.
"It impacted not only the lives of women, but also hugely affected men and children, and from the 1970s onwards, brought about significant social, cultural and economic change."
But that change came too late for some, according to Susie Hall. "I'm certain that there were many really fine teachers who had to give up teaching completely because of the marriage bar," she says. "And what a travesty that is. Think of all that unfulfilled potential."
Despite losing her job at one of the most prestigious schools in Dublin, Susie's teaching career was only interrupted temporarily. She landed a job at Malahide Community School soon after and taught there for 39 years. "I loved every moment of it," she says. "And there are even calls now for retired people to go back and teach. It's all so different than it was when I was starting out in my career.
"Ireland has come a long way. When I was at school, career options for women were limited. Now, I think of all the wonderful careers my ex-pupils went on to and it's a sign of how much has changed.
"It's hard to believe today that people used to be forced out of their jobs when they got married, but it really did happen and there are a lot of women out there who will recall the very moment they were told to pack their bags."
Floodgates for greater equality opened in 1970s
The removal of the marriage bar under the Civil Service [Employment of Married Women] Act in 1973 was just one of a series of legislative changes to improve the lot of women in the patriarchal Ireland of the era.
There had been signs that the times they were a changing in 1957, when bean gardaí were first recruited to the police force and, a year later, when women teachers could continue in the job after their marriage.
But the floodgates for greater parity at home and in work truly opened in the 1970s. In 1973, the Social Welfare Act made provision for the payment of a deserted wives' benefit, and for the payment of an unmarried mother's allowance, and the following year, women were officially allowed to collect the children's allowance. (Remarkably, it had been the father who had been the person designated to collect this money up to then).
In 1976, the Family Home Protection Act prevented the husband from disposing of the family home without the consent of his wife.
Then, in 1977, the government effected the EEC's directive on equity by passing the Employment Equality Act, which also established the Employment Equality Agency. And, that same year, employees - including pregnant workers - were protected from wrongful dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act.
The 1980s saw further improvements for working mothers. The Civil Service introduced a scheme of job sharing and career breaks in 1984, a move that was soon widely extended through the public sector, while the 1989 Social Welfare Act meant that, for the first-time, married women in Ireland were to be treated equally with men and single women in the social-welfare code.
In 1990, the European Commission launched the NOW (New Opportunities for Women) Programme, with the explicit aim of creating equal access for women to jobs and professional training.
Working mothers were finally acknowledged in 1998 with the Parental Leave Act giving parents an entitlement to unpaid leave from work to take care of young children.