Fifty years ago, my wife had to resign her job in the Civil Service. We have happy photos of the day in question, as it was our wedding day. However, she, and a generation of women forced to give up their careers, remain sore about the infamous marriage bar.
It was introduced in 1925 by the then minister for finance, Ernest Blythe. He had also tried to restrict entry to the Civil Service to men, but the Senate had rejected this. However, he was effectively resuming the practice which had pertained under the British – the UK Treasury had operated a marriage bar since 1894, along with a marriage gratuity for those forced to leave.
One elderly guest at our wedding told us that when she started in the Department of Education in 1916, women were to leave work 15 minutes before the men, so they would not meet on the stairs
Indeed, women had been initially admitted to the British civil service only under conditions of segregation from men. One elderly guest at our wedding told us that when she started in the Department of Education in 1916, women were to leave work 15 minutes before the men, so they would not meet on the stairs.
However, the marriage bar was a much more far-reaching disability. While the UK civil service abolished it in 1946, here it took until July 1973. As well as the public service, marriage bars were also common up to this period in other jobs, particularly white-collar ones such as the banks.
The 1972 Commission on the Status of Women had recommended abolition of the marriage bar, but EEC membership was the real impetus for change. That commission had been chaired by Thekla Beere, the first woman secretary of a department. She never married, but had maintained a 40-year relationship with a Dublin businessman. That was highly unusual in that era – women either married, or stayed unattached.
It wasn’t clear in mid-1972 if, or when, the marriage bar would go, so rather than wait indefinitely, we went ahead with our wedding, at the cost of Eithne’s permanent job.
While the marriage bar was finally abolished, it still cast a shadow over the public service for decades. The marriage gratuity was retained for pre-1973 entrants who left within two years of their wedding. For those with the minimum six years’ service to qualify, this was worth half a year’s pay, tax free – a huge inducement to leave to anyone facing the expense of setting up home and putting down a house deposit.
A Maynooth University study confirmed the wide-ranging impact of the marriage bar. It affected about one in five women who are in their 70s today who had ever married and had ever engaged in paid work. That study also found that those required to retire on marriage had higher qualifications than others, reflecting that it was a white-collar phenomenon.
Loss of talent
The Commission on the Status of Women had highlighted the serious loss of talent to the public service that the marriage bar entailed. An Irish Times piece in 1975 reported that bosses were generally relieved that women could now remain at work, reducing their turnover of trained staff.
Two generations after the ending of the marriage bar, women are making it into the top ranks of the Civil Service in greater numbers. Six of the current secretary-generals of Government departments are women, and we have seen women head other key offices such as the Revenue Commissioners and the Director of Public Prosecutions. But it has been a long time coming.
The Department of Finance remains an outlier today in terms of how few women are in its top ranks compared to other departments
In his recently published history of the Department of Finance 1959-99, Ciarán Casey highlights the persistence of misogynistic views at the top of that department into the 1990s. The Department of Finance remains an outlier today in terms of how few women are in its top ranks compared to other departments, including its sister Department of Public Expenditure and, indeed, the Central Bank.
Today we recognise the importance of a diverse workforce, where inclusion of people of different gender, social background, ethnicity and disability brings different perspectives to the job and enriches the workplace. Research on the causes of Ireland’s economic lift-off has shown the key role played by increased labour-force participation of women in the substantial economic growth over the past three decades. Since the early 1970s, the proportion of women at work has doubled, from around 28 per cent in 1971 of those aged over 15, to 60 per cent today.
On average, women workers are better educated than men and their increased presence has also raised overall productivity. The Taliban-like rule that prevented married women from entering or keeping their jobs was thus not only an injustice to the women themselves – it also held back Ireland’s economic development.