Denial of citizenship
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.