A woman’s place is in the home? Why Ireland will vote on outdated law

Men and women enjoy more equality in Ireland than almost any other country on earth; there was a female head of state in Dublin for longer than in all but three other capitals; and the share of women on corporate boards is rising faster than the EU average.

Yet according to the Irish constitution, a woman’s life and duties are in the home.

“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,” reads Article 41.2 of the 1937 constitution. It adds that the state will “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”.

The coalition government headed by Leo Varadkar has committed to holding a referendum on the issue this year. But he has not set a date yet, despite pressure from activists, politicians and rights defenders.

The failure to update the constitution on this matter is a glaring omission, given that the 86-year-old legal text has already been amended in recent years to get rid of bans on abortion and divorce, and to permit same-sex marriage.

“It’s a really key marker in terms of moving away from the old Ireland and the place where it put women,” said Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council.

A new public holiday will be inaugurated on Monday in honour of Ireland’s “matron” saint — the first holiday to celebrate a woman, and the result of a long campaign that included an online petition. Saint Brigid was born to unmarried parents in the fifth century and forced to work as a servant to her father. She went on to gain vast power and influence in Ireland after founding a major monastery.

Saint Brigid is the ‘matron’ saint of Ireland © Paolo Romiti/Alamy

Plenty of groundwork for a referendum has already been done: a citizen’s assembly — a forum used to prepare for other progressive constitutional changes — recommended introducing gender-neutral language that would also recognise the value of all caregivers and broaden the definition of family as an institution based only on marriage.

A parliamentary committee in December published proposed new wording — which will need approval from the attorney-general, cabinet and the Dáil parliament — to recognise and support “care within and outside the home and family including, but not limited to the marital family”.

“It’s really important that we understand that care is not for one gender alone,” said Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, an advocacy group for one-parent families.

She said the current wording was not only “transparently sexist”; an update would be “a symbolic reparation for what was done to unmarried women and children in this country — such as the Magdalene Laundries”, she said, referring to institutions run by religious orders where so-called fallen women and unwed mothers were forced into servitude.

The architect of the legal text was Éamon De Valera, Ireland’s former president and most prominent 20th century politician, whose personal upbringing may have shaped his views on women’s rights: aged two, he was sent from New York to live with his grandmother in Ireland, as his widowed mother could not work and care for him.

Éamon De Valera
Éamon De Valera was the architect of the 1937 constitution © Getty Images

The 1937 constitution was controversial from day one: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, a suffragette and activist, blasted the text as a “fascist model in which women would be relegated to permanent inferiority”.

In the following decades, progress on women’s rights was slow: only in the last half century have Irish women been able to drink a pint in a pub, serve on a jury, collect family allowance or refuse sex with their husbands.

Current-day politicians and commentators are taking nothing for granted. Labour party leader Ivana Bacik, who chaired the parliamentary committee, said public opinion favoured change, but “nothing is inevitable”. In an opinion poll last year, less than a quarter of people thought women were treated equally in the home and less than a third saw equality in the workplace.

Maria Steen, a conservative Catholic commentator, barrister and stay-at-home mother to five children under 16, opposed any amendment.

She called it a “misconception” that the constitution confined women to the home. Gender-neutral language was really an attempt “to erase women who choose a different way of life, and any praise or acknowledgment for the work that they do”, she added.

But Linda Doyle, Trinity College Dublin’s first female provost, said she had personally “benefited from women being in much better positions now”.

At an event to unveil the first statues celebrating inspirational women in the university’s famous Long Room, she added: “Yes there’s progress, yes it’s fantastic . . . but things don’t change unless you say ‘I want that change’ and then you go and do something about it.”

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