Opinion: Article 41.2 was built on the myth of the male breadwinner, which impacted women differently depending on their background

By Heather Laird and Emma Penney, UCC

Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution famously proclaims that the state will "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." This article is quite rightly criticised for perpetuating gender stereotypes, establishing a mother’s domestic role as her core occupation, and suggesting that women do not require the same freedom of choice as their male counterparts. The duties of fathers, it is pointed out, are nowhere referenced in the constitution.

Critics of this article link it to such discriminatory practices as the so-called marriage bar, which from the 1920s until 1973 required Irish women in certain public service jobs to leave their employment upon marriage. Following repeated demands at national and international level for the article to be either amended or removed, the Government committed in 2016 to holding a referendum on it.

The article has since been debated by the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality and the Assembly has met  to determine the wording of the ballot paper to be used in the forthcoming referendum. The article, the Assembly concluded, had come from "a very different time, for a very different Ireland."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Laura Cahillane from the University of Limerick on Article 41 of the Irish Constitution, which describes the role of women in the home

While the forthcoming referendum is to be welcomed, discussions of the article too often conjure up an image of a frustrated middle-class woman forced to stay at home rather than engage in validating work outside the house. But some women having restricted access to paid labour and the self-fulfilment that it can bring is only one strand of the story of Irish mothers and work outside the home. This story also includes a long history of working-class mothers who had no choice but to join the workforce.

Women’s paid work has been assigned a distinctly marginal role in such celebrated accounts of Irish labour history as Peter Berresford Ellis's A History of the Irish Working Class (1972). Ellis’s book is largely an account of working-class men in a partially-industrialised Ireland of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In contrast to a more heavily-industrialised Britain, service rather than production occupations made up the greater proportion of Irish working-class jobs at this time. Core to these service occupations was paid household labour provided by women, whether married or single. The 1911 census indicates that 93% of Irish indoor servants were women.

While female participation in the workforce in general began to drop after the establishment of the Free State, the demand for paid household labour continued. In a 2005 publication, "Working Women, Trade Unionism and Politics in Ireland, 1830-1945," historian Maria Luddy states that domestic service remained "the largest single source of female employment until the 1950s" in the south of Ireland.

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From RTÉ News, Citizens' Assembly calls for 'women in the home' article in the constiution to be altered

Gender stereotypes are invariably selective. Historically, the paid labour of actual women at the lower end of the socio-economic scale co-existed with valorisations of the ideal woman as the "angel in the house". The "woman in the home" article of the Irish Constitution is offensive to women. But arguments for its deletion or amendment that view it as reflective of 1930s Irish society fail to acknowledge the experiences of working-class Irish mothers in the early years of the state who had little option, but to combine motherhood and paid labour.

Moreover, discussions of Article 41.2 that focus on its impact on middle-class mothers who were denied equal access to the workplace can distract attention from the failure of that article to yield practical benefits to mothers from poor families who wished to stay at home. Given that the "Family" section of the constitution discouraged the state from intervening between the man as head of household and the woman and any children as his dependents, the welfare system was ostensibly relieved of the responsibility of providing adequate support for such mothers.

It is likely that working-class women felt the impact of this gendered inequality most severely in the late 1970s and 1980s when economic recession impacted working-class communities, some of which experienced up to a 40% increase in reliance on social welfare. In her 1984 address to the Council for Civil Liberties, Eithne Fitzgerald noted how "Ireland is virtually unique in paying adult dependent allowances for all wives of welfare-reliant husbands". This meant that women were not entitled to a payment of their own in homes where a man was present. Instead, the full welfare payment was made to the male cohabitant and he was responsible for handing over the woman’s share.

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From RTÉ Archives, Colm Connolly reports for RTÉ News in 1986 on Women in the Home, a group seeking recognition for the work done by women who choose to stay at home rather than go out to work

Article 41.2 is at the core of this uneven treatment of women and men in Irish welfare policy. In her book Women and Poverty (1989), Mary Daly observes that a woman’s share of a welfare payment was usually only 60% of the man’s payment. Furthermore, the woman was expected to care for any children and manage all household expenses on this partial payment.

Article 41.2 caused a central contradiction in the lives of mothers who experienced poverty in this state. It created the image of a valued carer and household manager, but the state’s interpretation of this article prevented certain women from carrying out this cherished role. Because they were officially classed as ‘dependents’ within the welfare state, women were often left with nothing if the ‘male head of household’ failed to hand anything over.

Removing or altering this article cannot be merely symbolic

Daly estimates that approximately 125,000 women were in such dependent relationships with men in 1987. "Because of the way poverty is measured", she notes, "we do not know precisely how many men fail to hand over sufficient money in the home." What we can assume is that for every man that failed to hand over money, there was a woman either forced to work outside the home or to navigate a social welfare system that only recognized her as a dependent. In this context, Article 41.2 can be viewed as a constitutional clause which prevented some women from rejecting low wage and exploitative jobs.

Ireland’s 1937 constitution was built around the myth of the male breadwinner and this impacted women differently depending on their socio-economic status. The on-going debate on whether this constitutional act should be altered or removed should coincide with an understanding that it never functioned evenly and cohesively amongst women. Removing or altering it cannot be merely symbolic. Our amended constitution should seek not just to reflect the current status quo, but to pave the way for "a very different Ireland" in which mothers from across the socio-economic spectrum have equal access to real options.

Dr Heather Laird is lecturer at the Department of English at UCC. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Emma Penney is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English at UCC where she is developing the academic field of Irish Working-Class Studies. 

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