A former librarian, teacher and trade unionist, Sylvia Meehan on the continuing fight for women's rights.

A former chairwoman of the Employment Equality Agency, Sylvia Meehan describes the necessity for those in power to value women and their contribution to society. 

A feminist through and through, Sylvia Meehan’s pragmatic approach to working on issues affecting women means coming up against adversaries on a regular basis. When one is in the business of change, she says, listening to your opponent’s point of view is necessary, and keeping a rational and calm head in such discussions is essential.

Some people would prefer if you were a kind of stereotype of enraged person, fulfilling all sorts of myths about female frustration and rage.

Describing herself as naturally inquisitive, Sylvia Meehan has always been interested in finding what lay behind control and power in Irish society. On equal pay for women, her interest lay in the Irish Constitution, with its statement regarding a woman’s place in the home, 

It was her life that was mentioned, not her work, or her labour in the home, and it was not rewarded.  All over the world as I knew it the work of women in the home, or as we call it, unpaid family duties, are never regarded as part of the GNP.

Having worked as a librarian before she got married, the marriage bar forced her to retire and stay at home full-time to raise her family, She later returned to the workplace as a teacher. We need to acknowledge contribution to society made by parents who take time out from their careers to rear their children, she says, as,

Women who exercise the maternal function are not recognised for the enormous social contribution they make.

Equality in the workplace means including provisions such as flexible working hours for both mothers and fathers, 

Men have suffered a great deal by being excluded from anything but a financial role in parenting.

Government funded childcare is another requirement, and it must be achieved, even in a country which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, Sylvia Meehan believes,

We always have had a great number of children, and reared them pretty well I’d say, but at the price of the individual prospects of women, and we would be foolish to think that that would continue.

Sylvia Meehan has long believed in the positive and transformative effects of membership of the European Community (EC). Irish in particular women benefited from EC membership when the Equal Pay Directive was implemented in 1975, even though the Irish government at the time sought a derogation,

We got equal pay due to a European directive, rather than to any political will on the part of any Irish government in power.

Irish women are able to make their voice heard on important issues, the X Case in particular, and Meehan also admires those women who were at the forefront of the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. But the fact that women’s contribution to both society and the Catholic Church still go unrecognised, means a reluctance to put women on an equal footing with men.

An independent, assertive woman I think is not just so biddable, and therefore she is mythologized into something aggressive and a bit cracked.

This episode of ‘Hindsight’ was broadcast on 8 August 1994. The presenter is Emer O'Kelly.

‘Hindsight’ was an eight-part series of half-hour interviews with major figures in Irish public life. It was presented by Emer O’Kelly. It was broadcast on Monday nights from 18 July 1994 to 5 September 1994.