Analysis: it's 50 years since the Commission was established to examine and report on the status of women in Irish society

It was 1967 when the late Hilda Tweedy and other delegates at the International Alliance of Women Congress in London heard about the United Nations' directive. Tweedy was a representative of the Irish Housewives Association (IHA), the only Irish women's organisation affiliated to the Alliance. The UN Commission on the Status of Women had issued a directive to women's international non-governmental organisations to ask their affiliates to examine the status of women in their respective countries and encourage their governments to set up a National Commission on the Status of Women.

A year later, an Irish ad hoc committee on women's rights had been formed. This included the IHA, Association of Business and Professional Women, Altrusa Club, the Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA), Irish Nursing Organisation, Dublin University Women Graduates Association, the National Association of Widows, the Soroptimists' Clubs of Ireland, Women's International Zionist Organisation,Irish Council of Women, the Association of Women Citizens and the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland.

Following intense campaigning and political lobbying by the group, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, established the First Commission on the Status of Women on 31 March 1970 to "examine and report on the status of women in Irish society, to make recommendations on the steps necessary to ensure the participation of women on equal terms and conditions with men in the political, social, cultural and economic life of the country and to indicate the implications generally - including the estimated cost - of such recommendations."

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From RTÉ Archives, Brian Cleeve from Wednesday Report looks at the status of women in Ireland in 1970.

The Commission, chaired by Thekla Beere, sought submissions from trade unions, employers and women's organisations and challenged notable discriminatory legislation that was implemented after the Irish State was formed in 1922. In 1972, the Commission presented its findings to the Government. It had received submissions from 41 different groups, with 17 of the 49 recommendations related to equal pay and women in employment. 

The careful tone of the document made it more broadly acceptable to both the public and Government. The extent to which its aims did not meet some of the goals of newly formed women's liberation groups was a source of debate throughout the 1970s, including in relation to class, Northern Ireland, sexuality, rape and reproductive rights. As Tweedy recalled in an interview for an ongoing research project on Irish feminism, "there was quite a bit of tension between us. They thought we were 'old hat' and we were an establishment." 

Hilda Tweedy from the Irish Housewives Assocation. Photo: RTÉ Stills Library

In conrast, a member of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement said "the women's liberation movement didn't come out of anything that had gone before...there was nobody old enough to be involved in anything that had gone before and I suppose we wouldn't have been too pleased to be bracketed with the ICA at the time. We mightn't have minded being bracketed with the suffragettes." 

The ad hoc committee tactically decided it would be necessary to form a permanent Council for the Status of Women (CSW) in 1973 to monitor the implementation of the Report's recommendations. Its ambitious aims were: (i) to provide liaison between Government Departments, the Commission of the European Communities, Women's Organisations and the Council; (ii) to press for the implementation of the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women ('the Beere Report’); (iii) to provide educational and developmental programmes for women aimed at giving women the opportunity of participating fully in the social, economic and political life of this country and to highlight areas of discrimination; (iv) to examine cases of discrimination against women and, where necessary, to take appropriate action; (v) to consider any other legislative proposals of concern to women and (vi) to be non-party political. 

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From RTÉ Archives, 1973 RTÉ News report on reaction to the publication of a report by the first Commission on the Status of Women in Ireland

However, the Women's Representative Committee (WRC) was established by the Minister for Labour as the officially recognised body to represent women's interests in December 1974. Rather than demanding control of the group, the CSW's leadership and executive tactically racommended the Minister's impetus and agreed to nominate three representatives onto the WRC.

This led to disagreement within the Council's affiliates, particularly from younger activists who were part of the second wave of feminism that emerged in the late 1960s. For instance, Gemma Hussey wrote to the Council's executive stating that the Women's Political Association overwhelmingly rejected the Minister's proposals, and AIM and Senator Mary Robinson publicly added their voices to protest. 

In 1978, the term of the WRC expired and the Government set up the Employment Equality Agency to deal with employment. The CSW, meanwhile, were assigned the task of monitoring the implementation of the remaining recommendations of the Report. The Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974, the Employment Equality Act 1977, the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service in 1973, and the Maternity Protection of Employees Act 1981 which introduced maternity leave are examples of related changes in Irish legislation. 

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From RTÉ Archives, Joe O'Brien reports for RTÉ News on the 1988 annual general meeting of the Council for the Status of Women

But there was significant resistance to gender equality in practice. Regardless of the 1975 EEC Directive on equal pay, for instance, the Government sought a derogation on the grounds that it could not afford to grant it to the Civil Service.  The 1952 UN Charter on the Political Rights of Women was not ratified by Ireland until 1968 and "even then only with reservations" (Irish Independent, 26 February, 1975). 

For example, Article 11 dealt with women's participation in jury service, but Ireland refused to comply on the basis that a woman could not be considered discriminated against as jury service was not obligatory for women. A 1976 court case, taken by Máirín de Burca and Mary Anderson (represented by Mary Robinson), was necessary to reform the Juries Act of 1927. Change when it occurred was slow and hard won, and recourse to the courts frequently remained necessary thereafter. 

Prominent members of the CSW (such as Nuala Fennell, Monica Barnes and Francis Fitzgerald, all of whom I have interviewed, as well as Gemma Hussey and others) successfully entered electoral politics but many others did not. The establishment of a Second Commission on the Status of Women was in 1990 considered necessary to address lack of progress in key areas. The National Women's Council today is the contemporary successor of the CSW and it remains an important representative group for women in Ireland. However, it also continues to co-exist alongside feminist groups that choose to either join the Council and/or to remain autonomous in grass roots groups campaigns that have also shaped the Irish women’s movement to-date.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ