In 1973 the long-awaited Commission on the Status of Women reported and detailed what amounted to, as Olivia O’Leary put it at the time, “centuries of prejudice”.
Until that year, the marriage bar remained in force. Women in the Civil Service were forced to resign on getting married. Around 700 women civil servants had been forced to resign from their jobs on marriage in each of the preceding three years.
Women in employment were paid substantially less than men and faced huge hurdles in achieving advancement. Contraception was banned and the prohibition on divorce left many women in abusive marriages. Incredibly, women were also barred from jury service until 1976.
In 1973 a group of feminists, chaired by Hilda Tweedy of the Irish Housewives Association (IHA), set up the Council for the Status of Women (CSW) with the goal of gaining equality for women. It was an umbrella for women’s groups, run by a voluntary committee, and funded by subscriptions of £5 a year per group.
Fifty years on, the CSW is now the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI). In a video message to mark the half-century, Sabina Higgins said the women’s movement in Ireland “released a tremor which challenged the basic sources of oppression and repression that affected women in Ireland”.
The CSW had been formed following the actions of the Contraceptive Train when women protested against the absence of contraception in the Republic in 1971, and the end of the marriage bar which followed Ireland’s entry into the EEC.
She said: “The Council for the Status of Women has played a crucial role in bringing women’s voices together, to demand and deliver change.
“It has also helped to shape Ireland and make it a better country. Its diverse membership has been a great source of collective strength with almost 200 members organisations and many individual members. While so much has been achieved in the last 50 years, this year is also about an ambitious next chapter.”
[ Sabina Higgins is as publicly embedded in this 12-year presidency as her husband ]
A long way
Her message was sent to mark Nollaig na mBan. Mrs Higgins has been named as a National Women’s Council’s Banlaoch (heroine or champion) for the year.
NWC director Orla O’Connor said that women in Ireland had come a long way since 1973.
“We lifted the marriage bar, campaigned for and achieved access to contraception and abortion in Ireland, as well as decriminalisation of homosexuality and equal marriage,” she added.
“We’ve outlawed marital rape and coercive control, and at NWC we continue to demand an end to sexual and gender-based violence. When women come together for change, we are unstoppable.”