Monday 18 November 2019

Constitution out of touch on a woman's place - and Gaffney knew it 80 years ago

Éamon De Valera’s Constitution in 1937 was the subject of much criticism by Irish Independent reporter Gertrude Gaffney. Photo: Getty Images
Éamon De Valera’s Constitution in 1937 was the subject of much criticism by Irish Independent reporter Gertrude Gaffney. Photo: Getty Images

Barbara Scully

A recent poll illustrated that voters are still very divided over whether to remove article 41.2 from the Constitution, a question that may well be put to the electorate in the near future. In the poll, 41pc voted 'yes' to remove the article and 39pc voted 'no', with 20pc 'don't knows'. This doesn't surprise me one bit.

Article 41.2.1 states "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" which kind of sounds great.

Parking the obvious gender problem for a moment, at first glance this looks positive; the State clearly articulating that there is huge value in the unpaid work that goes on within the home. However, the real kicker is in the second part, "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". In other words, the State believes that a mother's real place is in the home.

I was a stay-at-home parent for 10 years and it was one of the happiest decades of my life. This surprised me hugely as, prior to the birth of my third child, I was very much a career woman and never thought I would survive a year at home, never mind a decade.

I was lucky that my 'housewifeing' coincided with the height of the boom and my husband worked all the hours he could, while I did all the rest. For us, it worked.

But I was always acutely aware that my work had no real value. I dreaded the question "and what do you do?" when it was asked of me anywhere other than at the school gates, where I was in a comfortable majority of stay-at-home parents. And when I took the first tentative steps back into the workplace in 2012, I was conscious that my 'lost decade' stood for nothing on my CV.

I attended the Constitutional Convention in 2013 which discussed article 41.2 and found myself very conflicted, because I knew well that most of the credit given to parents who choose to give up work in order to care for their own children is patronising and meaningless. I equally felt that many feminists paid lip service to these parents, who are mainly women. I naïvely took some comfort from these words in the Constitution, which seemed to give real respect to the work of those at home. And I obviously wasn't alone because in the end, the convention voted to change the gendered language and to include all carers in the home - but only 12pc of the delegates voted to abolish it completely.

I am now clear that the aim of 41.2 was to keep women at home, out of the way, dependent on their husbands and, most importantly back then, out of the workforce.

A smarter woman than I, Gertrude Gaffney, a reporter for the Irish Independent, knew this back when the Constitution was being debated in 1937 and wrote a blistering attack on both Éamon de Valera and his Constitution's reference to women in the home. She opened with "the death knell of the working woman is sounded in the new Constitution, which Mr de Valera is shortly to put before the country". She went on to write that Mr de Valera "dislikes and distrusts us as a sex and his aim ever since he came to office has been to put us in what he considers is our place".

Putting women in our place, which has generally been either in the home or in a convent, and keeping us there, has been used by patriarchy for centuries as a way of keeping women submissive. And although we are now needed in the workforce and have made great progress in equality of pay and opportunity, we are still not equal players in the centres of power in politics, in business or in media (as is confirmed by the publication of salaries paid to BBC presenters, which heavily favoured 'pale males').

Equality is about choice. Therefore, parents should be afforded support if they wish to take time out from their careers in order to care for a loved one, whether it's a child, an elderly infirm parent or another family member with care needs. Caring is one of the fundamental needs in society and it is one that the State or employers don't value.

Before we undertake a referendum on article 41.2, the State must improve the supports for carers.

It must also ensure that financial support available to parents must also be available to those who stay home to look after their own young children themselves. And employers must become more flexible in allowing such caring breaks.

I will leave the last word with Gertrude, who further wrote "already, the Saorstat [Free State] is on the black list at Geneva as one of the countries where women have been accorded the worse treatment, despite the supposed equality of our present status. If we are to be relegated to a new status that saddles us with physical and moral incapacity as bread-winners, a new class of country in a category all by itself will have to be created at Geneva and a nice laughing stock will be made of us". Sounds familiar, right?

  • Gertrude Gaffney's article 'The Death Knell of the Working Woman' is reproduced in full in the book, 'Great Irish Reportage', edited by John Horgan and published by Penguin Ireland.
  • For the record, the poll quoted was a behaviour and attitudes survey for 'The Sunday Times Ireland'.

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