Feminism has played a significant role in shaping the legal and social position of women in present-day Ireland. We return to that unfinished struggle, and its challenges today.
Is feminism a disease? It is sometimes entertaining to check out the etymology of words. It turns out that the term ‘feminism’ first appears in the medical vocabulary at the end of the 19° century. It pointed to a disease stopping the growth of young tuberculous men. Intriguing castration metaphor. It’s been over a century that we have suspected that women have want to emasculate men. However, Ireland, at the time of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic intended to be progressivist.
On Easter Monday 1916, the poet and rebel leader Patrick Pearse read out the promise of equality addressed to Irishmen and Irishwomen. The proclamation declared an end to British rule, but it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. It committed to universal suffrage – extraordinary for the time – and two years before women in Britain won the right to vote.
In 1918, women in Ireland were allowed to vote at age of 30 if they had qualifications or university constituencies, while men could vote at age 21 with no qualification. Four years later, in 1922, the government gave equal voting rights to men and women. Nevertheless, this great breakthrough didn’t last. Over the next decade, some laws concerning women rights were introduced in the constitution. Women were not allowed to work on juries, work in the public service or in industry after marriage.
Taoiseach Eamon De Valera’s conservative leadership further stripped women of their previously granted rights. Groups like the Irish Housewives’ Association and the Irish Women Workers’ Union valiantly fought these attempts to restrict women to the domestic sphere, but it wasn’t until the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s that reformists and activists again combined to achieve some extraordinary changes.
The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement
The creation of The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement is an important starting point. A year after its creation, the members took a train to Belfast and brought condoms back to Dublin. In the aftermath, they protested against the interdiction of contraceptives in the republic. Once the ‘contraceptive train’ passed, the marriage ban in the civil service was lifted, and the Supreme Court ruled that contraceptives pills could be used in marriage, but their importation was forbidden.
The following years, equal pay laws were introduced, women were allowed to sit as jurors and the Employment Equity Act banned discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status. In 1978, Haughey’s “Irish solution to an Irish problem” made contraceptives available for “family planning or medical reasons”. They could be dispensed by a pharmacist only on the presentation of a medical prescription from a doctor. 7 Seven years later, the sale of condoms was legalised for young adults.
This second-wave of feminism also helped spur major development. Mary Kenny, one of the second-wave leaders, and an experienced journalist, once had a conversation with a group of Irish feminists about what was the greatest benefit to women during the 20th century. According to her, everyone had a different answer: “some said ‘the contraceptive Pill’, other suggestions included ‘the motor car’, ‘education’, ‘the washing machine’, ‘freedom for corsets’, and to dress as we please”, “freedom to leave an unhappy marriage”. However, she thinks that « the leading answer still must be ‘the vote’, because without the vote there is no democratic suffrage and no political power».
Nowadays, Ireland is the country in the EU applying the most drastic law on abortion. Until 2013, abortion was forbidden whatever the reasons. Today, this medical procedure is still a criminal act except if the pregnancy is at risk of imminent death for the woman. Apart from the abortion issue, Ireland has still progress to make regarding parity. Apparently, Irish women have more rights than their mothers and grandmothers, but equality has yet to be achieved in many fields.
The wage gap between men and women is to 14% (Eurostat data). Even if this gap could be explained by the lower number of working hours per women – by relating their income to an hourly rate similar to men, women earn only 86% of men’s pay. Single mothers are at a greater risk of falling into poverty because of the lack of access to pre-school education which prevents them from finding work. Despite a new strategy which has been established in 2017, the childcare access is unequal, which feeds ‘again’ gender inequalities. Thus, men still dominate the workplace.
Most decisions in business and politics are taken by men while women often find themselves lagging behind when it comes to equal opportunities and income. In the lower house of Parliament, only 22% of women hold seats (Eurostat data). Women only represent 1/3 of positions carried at the head of state – 12% at the Regional Authorities, and 13,2% are taking leadership positions. Ireland ranks in the lower-middle on the European parity scale where the average rate of women ministers is to 28%. France and Sweden set an example regarding parity in the government.
According to Mary Kenny, fair representation in Parliament is not always a measure of a progressive state. « Some of the least developed countries – Rwanda, I think, in Africa – have some of the highest representation of females. East Germany (DDR) also had a high ratio of women in their parliament, but they were mostly yes-women, obedient to the Communist Party, which hardly leads to independent thinking ». According to her, the only thing that Ireland can do at the government level is to give women every chance to stand for parliament and to be encouraging and positive about a political career.
Nevertheless, for Mary Kenny, the most crucial challenge for feminism today is not equality within the government but motherhood, “Motherhood is always a challenge, not because of laws against motherhood, but because women, in their hearts, often feel ambivalent about whether they should prioritise their careers or their attachment to their children”. Indeed, today, 445 500 women are looking after home/family versus 9 200 men. (Central Statistics Office, 2016).