Saturday 24 March 2018

How women were 'put in their place'

Women objected to Eamon De Valera's vision for them, but it made little difference, says Diarmaid Ferriter

The 1937 constitution acknowledged the right of women to vote and become TDs and citizens on the same basis as men, rights that had also been guaranteed under the 1922 constitution. But article 41.2 of the new Constitution attracted significant opposition from feminists.

The article reads:

1. 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.

2. 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 within the home

This was seen by some at the time as a tribute to those working in the home but by others as an offensive and patronising restriction of the freedoms of women, implying that "life within the home" was the natural vocation of women. While it mentions the possibility of women neglecting "their duties", it makes no mention of the duties of fathers.

Lawyers for the State later used these clauses to successfully justify tax and social welfare discriminations against women. While the Constitution acknowledged "all citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal under the law" a qualification was added: "This shall not be held to mean that the State shall not in its enactments have due regard to differences of capacity, physical and moral, and social function".

It was clear from these words that De Valera envisaged equal rights for women to be confined to the political sphere. Letters of protest to the Government concerning the articles relating to women came from domestic and international organisations, including the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship and the Six Point Group in London, who suggested "these clauses are based on a fascist and slave conception of woman as being a non-adult person who is very weak and whose place is in the home. Ireland's fight for freedom would not have been so successful if Irish women had obeyed these clauses".

Lucy Kingston, honorary secretary of the National Council of Women of Ireland, expressed her association's opposition on the grounds that the objectionable clauses were not "in keeping with the spirit of the Republican Proclamation of 1916".

Louie Bennett, one of the best-known female trade unionists, wrote a letter to de Valera in 1937 urging him to add a sentence to the effect there was no intention to discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of sex or class:

"In country homes, the housewife often finds it necessary to keep the house door open, but it is usual then to put up a half door as a safeguard against unwelcome intrusions. If you must keep this particular door in the Constitution open, put up a guard against Fascist intrusions".

A brief meeting between De Valera and protesters in 1937 achieved little, except the deletion of the phrase "inadequate strength" in clause 45 which had outlined the State's intention to protect women and children from unsuitable "avocations" because of their "inadequate strength".

Despite the dropping of this phrase, the substance of the discrimination remained. These clauses enabled the Government to declare, as a qualification for a specified office, that the woman holding it be unmarried or widowed, which ensured that in teaching and the civil service women were obliged to resign from their positions if they married. In response to the articles concerning women's status, Gertrude Gaffney wrote in the Irish Independent in May 1937, that De Valera "had always been a reactionary where women are concerned. He dislikes and distrusts us as a sex and his aim ever since....has been to put us in what he considers our place and to keep us there".

By the 1970s, however, in conjunction with the emergence of the Irish feminist movement, interpretations of the Constitution by the courts ensured a significant improvement in the status of women. The impact of Ireland's membership of the EEC from 1973 also made a difference Individual women began to successfully challenge laws including the bans on contraceptives women doing jury service. But what is striking is the extent to which these changes were forced on governments by the courts, the women's movement and the EEC rather than being initiated by governments.

Irish Independent Supplement

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