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Ireland: A Special Survey

International Socialism, October 1976


Des Derwin et al.

Ireland: A Special Survey

Women’s Struggles

From International Socialism (1st series), No.92, October 1976, pp.37-38.

THE CONDITION of women in Ireland betrays most of the disadvantages suffered elsewhere in western Europe – only accentuated to a greater degree. There has been a corresponding weakness in the degree to which the upsurge of women’s liberation movements has penetrated the cocoon of puritanism spun by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.

The oppression of women, of course, antedated the nineteenth century, but women had had considerably more rights in Gaelic society than in the contemporary European feudalism. The County Cork economist William Thompson was a pioneer of women’s rights, he anticipated some of Marx’s economic conclusions, and published an Appeal of one half the human race, women, against the pretensions of the other half, men, to retain them in political, and thence in civil and domestic slavery in 1825. Ireland had its own suffragette movement and in Countess Martievicz it had the first woman elected to the House of Commons. She became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary Dail government during the War of Independence, still the only woman to have held ministerial office. The few women who sit in the Dail (and this article deals only with the 26 Counties) are all, with one exception, widows or daughters, of deceased members.

With the temporary stopping of the national struggle in 1921 through the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the conservative Catholic bourgeoisie who came to power in the Cumann na nGaedheal government (1922-1932) soon put women back into her place. Divorce was abolished in 1925 (and only recently has legislation come on to the agenda again with a long and complicated proposal from the government to define grounds for ‘annulment’ of marriages).

The tendency was not reversed by Eamon de Valera’s coming to power in 1932. Anxious to prove himself a good Catholic, he enshrined the prohibition of divorce into the 1937 Constitution, together with large slices of Catholic social theory, including in article 41 the protection of the family unit and the recognition

‘that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. 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’.

The result of these attitudes has been a depressed economic position for the minority of women who are in the workforce – only 25 per cent of women are in paid employment (figures for the Republic). Women who have never worked cannot receive unemployment assistance (welfare benefits). Nearly half the women workers in manufacturing industry are in the declining industries of textiles, clothing and footwear. Women form 7 per cent of the workers in industries covered by Joint Labour Committees (which set legal minimum wages). The degree of unionisation in May 1974 (excluding agriculture) was 64 per cent of male workers, 36 per cent of female. [1]

The introduction of equal pay should have made a small impact on these figures. However, equal pay has been a fiasco. The Commission on the Status of Women, appointed by the previous, Fianna Fail, government, recommended the introduction of equal pay at the end of 1977. Determined on a reforming gesture, the Coalition government enacted the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act to take effect from the end of 1975, though with a great deal more loopholes than the equivalent British act. Female civil servants were brought most of the way up to the male rates, on a phased basis. As president of the EEC Council, the foreign minister Garret Fitzgerald signed Directive 117 of 1975, establishing equal pay throughout the European Communities from 1976.

Through this period, the government were subjected to representations from business, accentuated by the economic recession. At the last minute they got cold feet and on 18 December 1975 introduced an amending bill for the postponement of equal pay, applying to the EEC for a derogation. On 23 December it was announced that the final phase of equal pay due on 1 January would be withheld from the public service.

The action provoked an unexpected backlash, even among trade union bureaucrats, who were presented with a ‘safe’ and legalistic argument, which might enable them to regain some credentials for militancy. A protest meeting on 15 January in the Dublin Mansion House was attended by 1,500 people, an attendance normally reached only by establishment party conferences. Some of the women involved in organising this meeting went on to found a Trade Union Women’s Forum which, however, has yet to show its organising ability.

On 21 January the government announced a compromise based on the widespread existence in the civil service of a differential between married men and single men. (Since this had arisen in a salary reduction for single men, the married rate had been regarded as the ‘rate for the job’ under equal pay). Single women were now put on the rate for single men, married women on the rate for married men. Since women had been required to resign on marriage until 1973, there were not too many married women and the step was not too expensive.

On 3 March, the EEC Commission refused to recommend derogation, and suggested that the Irish government apply for financial aid. Suggestions have been shuttling between Brussels and Dublin since then, allowing people to forget the issue as effectively as it had been forgotten through most of the private sector in the previous years. Trade union officials have made fine speeches about the failure to advance towards equal pay, and have done nothing to include it in claims. The weak economic position of so many women workers has made militancy rare.

One of the few instances of reasonable success was in three Dublin television rental companies, where 250 women led by a group of AUEW-TASS, and supported by their male colleagues, went on strike for four weeks in April/May 1976, and won a phased implementation of most of their demands, involving pay increases, reduction of grades and reduction of Saturday working.

More recently, female day telephonists went on a work-to-rule after the ‘neutral’ Labour Court recommended that they did not qualify for equality with the basic rate of male night telephonists. (As the two grades had been recruited separately, they had not qualified for the normal civil service moves towards equality). The work-to-rule was unofficial but not impeded by the Post Office Workers’ Union. The work-to-rule was called off by the union when management agreed to negotiate.

An agreement in August 1976 for drapery and footwear shops provided for the final implementation of equal pay in July 1977, ie that the law should be broken for 18 months! Although strikes for equal pay have up to now been permitted, the narrowly rejected draft 1976 pay agreement would have ruled out such action and allowed women workers to obtain equal pay only by recourse to the courts. The equal pay claims which have been won by direct negotiations have covered mainly clerical and other white collar sectors.

Outside the directly economic field, the chief battleground has been on access to contraception. The sale or importation of contraceptives was prohibited by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935, charmingly entitled

‘An act to make further and better provision for the protection of young girls and the suppression of brothels and prostitution, and for those and other purposes to amend the law relating to sexual offences’.

However, during the 1960s the contraceptive pill became used on a wide scale: since it can be used as a ‘cycle regulator’ its sale could not be prohibited. It was estimated that in February 1974, 38,000 Irishwomen were on the pill. [2] A more recent estimate has put the figure at over 60,000.

The law does not forbid the giving-away of contraceptives and since 1969 several clinics have used this loophole, financing themselves by donations, and opening to sections of the working class the ability to obtain contraceptives, until then the prerogative of those who could afford to go to Northern Ireland and smuggle them back.

The wall of obscurantism cracked in 1973 when, in its judgement in the McGee case, the Supreme Court ruled that to ban the importation of contraceptives for private use was an invasion of the privacy of the family and hence unconstitutional. At last the smuggling could stop (although the Supreme Court judgement leaves it open whether unmarried persons have the legal right to import contraceptives).

The sale of contraceptives remains illegal despite several bills; the government’s own bill in 1974 was defeated when Liam Cosgrave and some supporters joined Fianna Fail in the opposition lobby, having made sure it was a ‘free vote’ for his own party.

Contraception, however, remains a key issue because here is manifested a critical contradiction in Irish society: can capitalism, faced with an inauspicious dependency ratio and a population boom (due to the ending of emigration) do without contraception? And dare it come into conflict with the Catholic Church which has been such a loyal ally? A public opinion poll in 1974 showed that 69 per cent of married women of child-bearing age wanted contraception legalised, with 27 per cent against; yet majority support was lacking in some other sections of the population. The Fine Gael party has traditionally been able to rely on the clerical and clericalist vote.

In such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that abortion is scarcely a public issue, despite the fact that over a thousand women go to Britain every year for abortions.

Divorce is more widely discussed. High Court cases under the Guardianship of Infants Act (a cheaper alternative to judicial separation) almost trebled in the years 1970-75, despite the absence of free legal aid. Church annulments have boomed, and the state is now proposing to bring civil law into line with ecclesiastical. As the law stands at present, thousands of Catholics who have had regular church marriages could be prosecuted for bigamy (through earlier marriages having been annulled or celebrated in a registry office): the State, of course, is far too kind to the Church to embarrass its faithful in this way.

The world upsurge of women’s liberation reached Ireland with the formation of the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970, initially with a considerable socialist participation. Interests fell off rapidly and the WLM became introverted, but its public impact created the atmosphere for the rise of a number of single-interest organisations concerned with battered wives, unmarried mothers keeping their children, more women public representatives, etc, and these together with the long-established Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the more urban Irish Housewives’ Association, and the Women’s Advisory Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions form something of an Establishment in the women’s movement, joining together in the unofficial Council for the Status of Women, which is represented on the government-sponsored Women’s Representative Committee.

The anti-Establishment forces in Dublin formed Irishwomen United in April 1975, which has adopted a charter based on removal of legal disabilities, free contraception and abortion, socialisation of housework and child care facilities, equality in education, and equal pay. Some of the organisation’s activities reflect its predominantly white-collar and student composition, e.g. occupation of an all-male tennis club and ‘swim-ins’ at an all-male bathing place.

It has been hindered by a rather anarchic structure: no formal membership and little co-ordination of diverse interest-groups. This has meant that it could organise an impressive rally for contraception in November 1975, and allow it to end without proposals for further action (although an ‘action programme’ was commenced in June 1976 with other groups). Also becoming more prominent is the basic contradiction between socialist and radical-feminist tendencies, which has raised the perennial problem of the autonomy of the women’s movement.

Irishwomen United have made little effort to become habitable by working-class women. Some participants were involved alongside women trade union officials in organising the protest meeting against the deferral of equal pay. But this is no substitute for organising within the trade unions themselves. It seems unlikely that Irishwomen United can produce the women’s movement that is needed. The revolutionary groups, however, can make little impact on their own because of their small size, although opportunities for participation have been taken up.


1. Hibernia, 16 January 1976.

2. Banshee, Journal of Irishwomen United, Vol.1, no.2.

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