Keeping women in the home

I came across something recently I had not heard for a very long time, and indeed had not expected to hear again, ever. I was having a cup of coffee in a Dublin city centre cafe, and at the table next to me were two middle aged ladies (you know, young compared with me these days). I don’t want to give the impression that I eavesdrop, but then again, maybe I do sometimes: I have to get material for my blog, after all. And here’s what they were saying.

Lady 1: ‘Do you remember Sarah [name changed], you know the red haired one that Jimmy was going out with?’
Lady 2:  ‘Yes. Too many opinions, if I remember rightly.’
Lady 1: ‘That’s the one. Well, she and Jimmy are getting married.’
Lady 2: ‘Really? I didn’t think Jimmy was, shall we say, the marrying kind.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, I thought that. But they are. But do you know, Sarah is going to continue working in the travel agency, you know the one Louise was working in until they let her go.’
Lady 2: ‘I hate that. Another married woman taking up a job that could go to someone who needs it.’
Lady 1: ‘Yes, just thinking of herself instead of others at this time when good people are losing jobs.’

I suspect the two ladies themselves were not unduly burdened with jobs – they looked more like the shopping-and-lunching kind – but even then I was aghast at the conversation and was sorely tempted to interject. Such an exchange would not have been untypical in, say, the early 1960s, but in the new millennium?

Well, even if the spirit of the age is against them, the law is not. Because here is what the Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann) has to say on the matter, in article 41(2) (in the context of constitutional protection for the family).

‘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 in the home.’

Before we get too anguished at all this, it is worth remembering that the Constitution was adopted in 1937, and it is full of social and political commentary that is typical of the age in which it was written, which in Europe generally was the age of corporatism, fascism and conservative social values. It is a document of its time. All in all, it has been interpreted in case law in a more modern, liberal manner (the effect of that being that the Constitution does not mean what it says, but what the judges say it means). So I am not aware of any case in which article 41 has been used to restrict women’s rights in employment, or anything similar (though an attempt was made to use it in a case on the tax code).

But still it is there, and is capable of being quoted. More than that, the lead-in to article 41, in referring to the rights of the family, says that the family is ‘a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.’ This latter phrase could suggest that the ‘special’ status of women – what you and I might consider discrimination against women – cannot even be revoked by law, not even by constitutional law.

Anyway, Senator Ivana Bacik has now called for a referendum to remove article 41 and its provisions from the Constitution. I would go along with this proposal, as a method by which we as a country may secure closure to an age in which society victimised some of its members, including women, and in which inequality was the norm. It’s time to move on. I might merely suggest – and I’ll return to this – that we don’t restrict our discussions to article 41, but might look more broadly at the possibility of adopting a completely new constitution.

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4 Comments on “Keeping women in the home”

  1. Ivana Bacik makes a good point, especially since the Oireachtas Committee has recommended amendments to article 42 (children) without balancing amendments to article 41 (family).

    The Constitution Review Group report of 1996 was a missed opportunity, as it examined the entire text in over 400 pages, making considered proposals (including new provisions on a Human Rights Commission, local government, the environment and the creation of an ombudsman. It suggested that both article 41 and 42 needed to be updated in tandem.

    The list of required constitutional amendments continues to grow, so the suggestion that a new constitution be adopted is a good one. However, the “new constitution” need not be completely new and could involve re-adoption of a revised version of the 1937 Constitution.

    The original constitution was adopted by a majority of 56.52% – healthy enough but not a home run. Any future referendum comprising more than one direct question could be doomed to failure. For example, the new proposed wording for article 42 will be controversial with certain groups.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Since the Council of Nicaea, every constitution is designed to prevent something and any statements made in a constitution should be read with this in mind.
    In our one, the position on property is due to the French stripping the Churches in the second half of the 19 century.
    But the statements on Women, we need to know why they put them in, for if they are in, there is nothing more certain than there will be implications in places that will be unexpected.
    This is not to say I disagree with removal of these sections, but there may be easier ways of doing it by pulling on one string.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    In the context of the universities it is interesting to note, on this theme, that the percentage of professors and senior staff who are female is disproportionately low, so maybe the spirit of the constitution lives on at the subconscious or structural levels….?! Discuss – I know you will.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I’m not an Irish citizen, so quite rightly will have no say in any referenda held to change the Constitution. But I agree with FvP that it would be WELL worth considering ripping the 1937 document up and starting again.

    As for the ‘women in the home’ stuff, yet another reason (and yes, I’m being serious here) women should think long and hard before either marrying or having children. As far as I can see, being neither married nor a mother more or less protects me from the interference of Article 41(2) in my working life.

    And with regard to the women overheard in the cafe, I’m not that surprised. Much good work (including some of it by DCU faculty) has been published on the phenomenen of ‘post-feminism’ over the past 2 decades, and that’s directly influencing comments such as theirs in the public discourse. There is also of course a question of class: it has become a badge of upper-middle-class status for the women in a family not to work. A couple of years ago a friend of mine had her little girl at a well-known fee-paying girls’ school in the city centre, and was the ONLY mother in her daughter’s class who had a job…

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