By Dr Mary McAuliffe, University College Dublin

Access to work, equal pay and proper pensions have all long been a problem for women in Ireland.  

Earlier this year, it was announced that women who were forced out of their jobs by the marriage bar will be locked out of the State pension reform plan. 

Under the marriage bar, which was introduced in 1932, women teachers – and, a little later, women civil servants – had to give up their job once they got married.

Because of this enforced gap in their working life, many women will now have to live on inadequate pensions. 

The bar on married women working, which remained in place until 1973, reflected the primacy of the ideology of domesticity for women in the Irish State.  

These women had fought for an Irish republic as laid out in the 1916 Proclamation

In 1936 women workers were further attacked when the Conditions of Employment Act was introduced.  

Under section 16 of this Act, the Minister for Industry and Commerce at the time, Sean Lemass, could restrict the numbers of women working in industry, and which industries they were allowed work in. 

This exclusion of women from the workplace was further reinforced by article 41 of the 1937 Constitution, which stated that "the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved" (Article 41. 2.1). 

No Country for Women: Maureen Cronin, now over 100 years old, chats about how she ignored the laws preventing her from working and continued to teach throughout the 1950s.

Furthermore, it said that "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" (Article 41.2.2). 

The home, marriage, domestic life and motherhood were the expectations that the Irish State had of women, and it enacted legislation to ensure that Irish women met with that expectation. 

This ideology of domesticity was not, however, developed without challenges. 

She convinced her commandant that she could lead a group of men in an attack on a British army sniper

First-wave feminists and nationalist women who had fought for Irish freedom tried to resist the imposition of second-class citizenship on women in the new State. 

These women had fought for an Irish republic as laid out in the 1916 Proclamation, which guaranteed equal citizenship for women. 

During the Easter Rising, three days after the reading of the Proclamation, one woman rebel – who was challenged by her commandant when she proposed leading a military action – insisted that the Proclamation positioned women on "an equality with the men", and therefore, she could be a fighter too. 

This was Margaret Skinnider, who fought with the Irish Citizen Army at the Stephen’s Green, Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) outpost. 

She convinced her commandant, Michael Mallin, that she could lead a group of men in an attack on a British army sniper, who were keeping the rebels in the college pinned down.  

During that action, Skinnider was wounded three times, and on being brought back to the college, she was operated on by the Citizen Army first aid team, without anaesthetic! 

She survived, and despite the surrender and her wounds, she managed to evade arrest. 

Skinnider would go on to play a very important role in the subsequent revolutionary years.  In 1917/18, she took part in the Republicans women’s propaganda tours in America, with her good friend Nora Connolly.  

She was instrumental in securing common incremental salary scales for women

While there, she published one of the first women’s eye witness accounts of the Rising, Doing My Bit for Ireland (1917). 

During the War of Independence, she was active as a senior member of Cumann na mBan. She opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty and spent time in Kilmainham Jail and the North Dublin Union. 

After her release, she got a position as a teacher in the Irish Sisters of Charity National School, at Kings Inns St, Dublin, where she remained until 1963. 

A lifelong trade union activist, she joined the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), eventually becoming its President in 1956.  

Never one to stand back from a fight, when the first Military Service Pensions Act was introduced by Cumann na nGaedheal in August 1924, Skinnider soon applied for a pension.  

She was not deterred by a requirement that any applicant had to have served in the National Army in 1923, as well as in the Rising or War of Independence, which, considering she was an anti-treaty woman, should have excluded Skinnider.

She applied for the disability pension allowed under the act. The Treasury solicitor dealing with her cas ruled that he was "satisfied that the Army Pensions Act is only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense".  

Despite the above advice of the Treasury solicitor, one woman, Brigid Lyons Thornton, who had been pro-treaty and a doctor in the National Army, was granted a pension under the Act –  but Skinnider, an inconvenient anti-treaty, unmanageable revolutionary, was refused. 

She published one of the first women’s eye witness accounts of the Easter Rising

Interestingly, a note in the pension application file of Cumann na mBan woman Brid Connolly, applying under the 1932 Army Pensions Act, which allowed women and anti-treatyites apply, gives some insight into Skinnider’s reasons for applying under the 1924 Act. 

Margaret Kennedy, a senior Cumann na mBan leader in Dublin, who was interviewed as a referee for Brid Connolly, noted that "she [Skinnider] tried as an experiment [in 1924] to see if they would give it to her". 

Like so many women in subsequent decades in Ireland, Skinnider made the decision to test the limits of misogynist legislation. 

In this case she failed, but she would apply again under the 1932 Act, and finally did get her pension. 

Not only would she fight her own causes, but she fought consistently for women workers, including during the 1946 teachers strike when she served on the INTO strike action committee. 

She was also instrumental in securing common incremental salary scales for women and single men teachers in 1949. It was the actions of Margaret Skinnider and so many women since, who challenged the accepted practices of inequality and exclusion of women, in the streets and through the courts, that gained women in Ireland many of the equalities the enjoy today. 

Margaret Skinniders’s activism and her challenges of inequalities in Ireland is one of the stories told in the RTÉ landmark documentary "No Country for Women". Her biography, by Dr Mary McAuliffe, will be published by UCD Press in late 2018. McAuliffe is an Assistant Professor in Gender Studies at University College Dublin.

No Country For Women, RTÉ One, 9.35pm on June 20. Watch the first episode on RTÉ Player.


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