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When a wife was her man's chattel


All aboard: Activists in Dublin in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast train to buy contraceptive

All aboard: Activists in Dublin in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast train to buy contraceptive

All aboard: Activists in Dublin in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast train to buy contraceptive

Four decades ago, on New Year's Day 1975, the first International Women's Year kicked off, sponsored by the United Nations. Had it happened five or ten years earlier the event would have been blithely ignored by Ireland's overwhelmingly male ruling class, but we had recently joined the EEC and Europe insisted the State make an effort to at least appear vaguely interested.

The lot of Irish women 40 years ago was a truly sorry one. The average industrial wage for a man was £53 against £27 for a woman. One in four women working outside the home were clerk/typists while one in 25 were nuns. Females were also barred from most apprenticeships, and while a male could sign on the dole upon turning 18, a female couldn't.

The 1970s were a time when many of the big purchases of the average Irish household - the fridge, the TV set, the record player - were bought in weekly instalments by hire purchase agreement.

In 1975 it was standard practice for hire purchase firms, along with the banks, to refuse a loan to a married woman unless her husband underwrote it, even if she was out in the workplace bringing in her own income. If a husband and wife shared a passport, he could travel on it alone, while his wife could only do so with his permission.

Women were also effectively barred from jury duty because only property owners qualified, and virtually all family homes and business premises were in the names of men. Worse, a married woman had no right to a half-share of the family home, even if she was the sole breadwinner.

Women had no right to get a barring order against a violent partner. The stark choice for the victim was to go home to the aggressor or find somewhere else to hide out. In the eyes of the law a married woman shared the same domicile as her husband. If the husband left to make a new life in, say, the USA, he could obtain a divorce there on the grounds that his wife, even though she remained back in Ireland, was now domiciled in the States and fair game for US divorce proceedings.

One of the most oppressive anti-women laws on the books at the start of 1975 was that of Criminal Conversation which had been the subject of a notorious court case that had scandalised society a couple of years earlier.

Criminal Conversation, which enshrined in law that a wife was the property of her husband, had been abolished in England in 1857 but remained on the Irish statute books.

In June 1972, Werner Braun, a German settled in Ireland, sued Roches' Stores director Stanley Roche,for "debauching" his wife Heidi at various locations.

Werner told Dublin's High Court that he'd been tipped off about the affair in an anonymous Christmas card which accused him of "pimping" his wife. The court heard that at one point the angry husband had "struck" his wife in a row over her affair. The Irish Independent reported that on hearing this the judge remarked that: "No man of spirit would have done otherwise."

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Awarding Werner the hefty sum of £12,000 in damages for what was deemed the theft of his wife, the judge pointed out, as reported by this newspaper at the time: "In this country a wife was regarded as a chattel, just as a thoroughbred mare or cow, and the jury was concerned merely with compensating Mr Braun for the value of the loss of his wife and the damages to his feelings."

The sensational trial was dubbed 'The Case Of The Chattel Wife' by the public, and two Labour deputies raised the matter in the Dáil with Justice Minister Des O'Malley. In response to their demands that he should repeal this law that deemed a woman to be her husband's property, the minister said that he didn't believe there was any need for urgent action.

The EEC wanted all of these oppressive situations addressed, and ordered the government to start by putting equal pay on the statute books by the end of 1975. The politicians compiled by drafting the legislation, but then did nothing to enact it. The Federated Union of Employers raised furious objections to paying women the same as men, insisting it would banjax the economy.

The Reverend Brother Vivien Cassels spoke for many when he remarked: "There is still a high percentage of women working for no valid reason, though they realise that by doing so they are depriving many young people from starting their careers in the civil service, banking or teaching.

"These people are not willing to forego the perks that a second salary can bring, like a trip to the Costa Brava, that second car or that well-stocked cocktail cabinet."

Union protests against sexist recruitment adverts were conspicuous by their absence. One posted in a Grafton St agency window read: "Receptionist/Typist: Christmas decorating? Why not start with your reception area and employ a girl like Joan. Joan is 25, very attractive. Altogether a lovely girl."

By the close of 1975 some equality legislation had been drafted but almost none enacted. Pressurised by employers and unions the FG/Labour coalition deferred equal pay until late 1977, by which time they'd been handed their P45 by the voters.

Criminal Conversation remained on the books until 1981.

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