Denial of citizenship
One of the questions facing the Cosgrave government in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State was the role of women in the new State. Despite the bitterness of the Civil War there were reasons to believe that women would be treated as full citizens. The 1916 Proclamation of the Republic had claimed the “allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman” and guaranteed “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. There was women’s active and important contribution to the Anglo-Irish war. Both pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty feminist women had maintained pressure for full equality in the 1922 Constitution, and Article 3 stated: “Every person, without distinction of sex . . . shall enjoy . . . the privileges and be subject to the obligations of . . . citizenship.” Despite anti-Treatyites’ low expectations of the new government, all nationalist feminists could enter the Free State with expectations of full citizenship.
All had their hopes dashed. Both Cumann na nGaedheal governments led by Cosgrave in the 1920s and Fianna Fáil governments led by de Valera in the 1930s enacted legislation depriving women of a number of rights. Both governments appeared determined to confine women to a domestic role. Though women could now vote for and sit in both Dáil and Seanad, few women were elected to the Dáil until the 1980s. There were five women TDs in 1923 and three in 1943. All were elected on party lines and none openly supported feminist issues. In the Seanad a few committed women senators did, notably Jennie Wyse Power.
Outside the Oireachtas, however, feminists were active. During the 1920s, a number of women’s groups resurfaced, some recasting themselves after suffrage had been won. The Irish Women Citizens and Local Government Association had changed the original “suffrage” in its title to “citizen”, and worked to encourage women’s citizenship. Both the National University and the Dublin University women graduate associations were active. There was also the Irish Women’s Equality League, formed to protect women’s interests, and the Irish branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1924, an umbrella organisation, the National Council of Women of Ireland, was established “to promote joint action among women’s organisations in Ireland and to stimulate thought and cooperation on all questions of social interest”. Depending on the issue, other women’s organisations came forward.
The issue of jury service first galvanised feminists into action. In 1924, the government proposed to exempt all women from jury service. Feminist opposition succeeded in having the 1924 Juries Act retain women on the jurors’ list while allowing any woman to choose to opt out. The government did not deem this a success. In 1927 it again introduced a bill removing women from jury service. Feminist opposition again modified it to some extent, but when passed the 1927 Act exempted women from jury service while allowing a woman to opt in if she so chose.
While the bills were going through the Oireachtas, feminists argued that removing women from jury service violated the Constitution’s equality clause. It was not a question of women wanting to sit on juries but of women fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens. Further, women jurors would benefit the legal system, especially in cases where the accused were women and children. Feminists reminded the government that women had run Dáil courts during the Anglo-Irish war, had served on county councils, and were qualified and ready for jury service.
Women were also restricted in terms of jobs and careers. Three pieces of legislation stand out. In 1925 the Cosgrave government introduced the Civil Service Regulation Bill which limited the right of women to sit for competitive examinations in the Civil Service. The 1932 marriage bar required women National School teachers to retire on marriage, a bar eventually extended to the entire Civil Service. In 1935 the de Valera government piloted the Conditions of Employment Bill that gave the Minister for Industry and Commerce authority to limit the number of women employed in any given industry and limit the type of industries that could employ women.
Women’s paid employment outside the home was a contentious issue. Debates on the Conditions of Employment Bill revealed a growing sentiment that women needed to be returned to the home, the bastion of domesticity. For many participants employment was a man’s right that needed protection from the upsurge of women workers. Little thought was given to single women and married women who had to support their families.
In the Dáil the Labour Party supported the government’s provisions, but in the Seanad Jennie Wyse Power argued that women had earned inclusion in the public sphere, whether Civil Service, jury box or factory floor, through their participation in the revolutionary struggle. No men, she claimed, ever had such loyal, devoted and competent comrades. These same men telling them they were not competent seemed much like betrayal.
Outside the Oireachtas Louie Bennett led the fight for the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU), calling for equal wages for men and women and for letting merit prevail. But it seemed meritocracy was not to be. As Helena Molony of the IWWU remarked, there was no standing shoulder to shoulder on this issue. The government, feminists claimed, were driving women, especially young women, out of the factories, telling them where they could work and restricting their numbers in other industries. To some this smacked of fascism.
Women’s organisations contested all these measures. They wrote letters to Dáil deputies, to senators, to the major newspapers. They met ministers. They held public meetings. They argued that the core issue at stake was the equality guaranteed in the Constitution. They proposed a society based on merit rather than on patriarchal principles. For example, those with the highest scores in Civil Service examinations should be appointed. Women should not be excluded because they were married and they pointed out that many women never married and they too were denied job prospects.
Despite feminists’ best efforts, despite the fact that the Civil Service Amendment Bill was defeated in the Seanad and narrowly escaped defeat in the Dáil, despite the efforts of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation to fight the marriage bar and the IWWU to protest the Conditions of Employment Bill, the measures all came into effect. Nevertheless, throughout the 1920s and 1930s feminists continually contested anti-women legislation. While failing to stop the onslaught, feminists exposed it and challenged the curtain of respectability that the Free State drew over its legislation of inequality.
Feminist activism continued through the 1930s and succeeding decades. The Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers was formed in 1935 to monitor – and oppose if necessary – social legislation affecting women and girls. Feminists contested various provisions in the draft 1937 constitution. They succeeded in getting some amended, and set up the Women’s Social and Progressive League to develop active participation by women in politics.
As well as opposing retrograde legislation, feminists worked for advancement in areas such as female education, employment opportunities, equal pay and promotion prospects, and support for widows and unmarried mothers. In 1970, just as second-wave feminism was emerging in Ireland, the established groups succeeded in getting the first Commission on the Status of Women set up. The torch was passed on.