Finding a new place for women in our 'fantasy' Constitution
For constitutional change: artist Gabhan Dunne, retired farmer Lily O'Donoghue, IT manager Linda Brennan and solicitor Maura Butler. photograph: brenda fitzsimons
The Convention on the Constitution is to question the claim that a woman’s place is in the home
Back in the mid 1970s the Waterford singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan was at the centre of a debate on the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour about the release of his controversial pop song A Woman’s Place (Is in the Home). However provocative the lyrics, O’Sullivan could, in his defence, have said he was merely reflecting the definition of women enshrined in the Irish Constitution, a clause that will be scrutinised today by the Convention on the Constitution.
Article 41.2 of the 1937 Constitution refers specifically to the role of women in Irish life. The article reads: “1. In particular 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. 2. 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.”
The convention’s 100 delegates, made up of politicians and 66 citizens, are meeting this weekend at the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Co Dublin, and will also consider measures to increase women’s participation in politics and public life.
Even when it was drafted the article caused controversy. The historian Diarmaid Ferriter has pointed out that it came in for criticism from organisations including the Six Point Group, in London, which said: “These clauses are based on a fascist and slave conception of woman as being a non-adult person who is very weak and whose place is in the home.”
So far the convention has received a small number of submissions on the issue, including a lengthy one by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, which will make a presentation today. Orla O’Connor, the director of NWCI, says the clause is “completely outdated” and never accurately described the diverse experiences of women in Ireland. “It needs to be replaced with a gender-neutral article.”
Others support the removal of the article altogether, including Dr Anne Rossiter, an Irish woman living in England. “No woman had a hand in drafting the 1937 Constitution. We are now in the 21st century. It is time to move on.”
For Lily O’Donoghue, a 66-year-old who raised seven children on the west Clare farm she owned with her husband, the “fairytale” clause in the Constitution that suggests women who stayed in their proper place in the home would “be minded and looked after” did not reflect the reality of life for a woman who was the primary care-giver.
In addition to her farm work and child- rearing, O’Donoghue spent years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. It was only after her mother died and O’Donoghue became involved in community work that she reflected on the isolation and economic discrimination women experienced.
“I discovered later on that I was not entitled to tax credits despite owning half the farm and working on it all those years. I wasn’t entitled to credits as a carer for my mother, either, because I hadn’t left a job to care for my mother . . . In my view the clause was about keeping women dependent, with no money, setting them up in the poverty trap. It was somebody’s idea of what women should be like, a kind of comely-maidens-dancing-at-the-crossroads fantasy, but it wasn’t in touch with reality.”
Despite her personal circumstances leading to missed opportunities for further education and employment, when her mother died, 12 years ago, O’Donoghue went on to work with carers herself, retiring last year.