Prominent feminist who helped shape the Ireland of today
As head of the Employment Equality Agency, Sylvia Meehan fought hard for women’s pay
Sylvia Meehan: In her latter years, she took up the cause of rights for older people as president of the Senior Citizens’ Parliament. Photograph: Derek Spiers
Born: April 2nd, 1929; Died: September 6th, 2018
Sylvia Meehan, feminist, trade unionist and first chief executive officer of the Employment Equality Agency, has died at the age of 89. Widely appreciated and respected for her passionate yet pragmatic approach to equal pay for women and – latterly – rights for older people, Meehan was a prominent member of the group of 1970s feminists who shaped the Ireland of today.
The middle child of Dr John Shiel and May Shiel (nee Lennon), Sylvia grew up on Drumcondra Road, Dublin with her two older twin brothers, Fergus and Neil (who died at the age of six), a younger sister, Rosa, and younger brother, Raymond. She attended Loreto Secondary School on North Great Georges Street. As a child, she was an avid reader, and her youthful discovery of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was a formative influence on her emerging feminist identity.
She studied legal and political science in University College Dublin and was the first woman to win the gold medal for oratory in the UCD Literary and Historical Society in 1950. She worked as a legal librarian after college.
Sylvia married the RTÉ broadcaster Denis Meehan in 1954, and the government’s marriage bar forced her to give up her job. In 1967, when the youngest of their five children was two years old, she returned to university to do a Higher Diploma in Education and began a teaching career in 1968.
Her husband died from cancer the following year, leaving her a widow with five children aged between four and 14. It was then that the reality of men being paid more than women – and in particular the married man’s allowance – hit home. She became active in the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI), rising to be its vice-president while working as assistant principal in the Ursuline Secondary School, Cabinteely (now Cabinteely Community School). She was also chair of the women’s committee of the Irish Council for Trade Unions. Teaching was one of the few careers that the marriage bar didn’t apply to.
When Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC – now the EU) in 1973, a derogation from the equal pay legislation was sought by the Irish government. Meehan and others in the Women’s Movement were appalled and sent representatives from the newly formed Council for the Status of Women to Brussels to advise the EEC that this political position didn’t represent the Irish people. Employment equality legislation was subsequently enacted. Meehan was appointed head of the new Employment Equality Agency in 1977, where she ably fought the cultural and legal battles to introduce equal pay for men and women. Betty Purcell, RTÉ broadcaster, feminist and friend, said that one of Sylvia’s greatest attributes was to remain cool and likeable while winning an argument. Her sharp intellect and shrewd insight into people’s motivations and character were also keys to her negotiation skills. She remained head of the Employment Equality Agency until her retirement in 1992.
Meehan’s strong public profile as a political activist ran parallel to a busy home life in Cornelscourt, Co Dublin. Her children have strong memories of a welcoming and open house, full of books, music, newspapers, cats and chats with many friends, neighbours and extended family. And, as her children became adults, Sylvia continued to play an active role in their lives and in the lives of her grandchildren.
Creating a garden at the family’s holiday cottage in Wexford became a hobby which she pursued again at the house in Goldsmith St, Phibsboro, Dublin that she moved to in later life. In fact, she once said in an Irish Times interview that if she hadn’t chosen the career she did, she’d have loved to have been a trained gardener.
Retirement was never something Meehan contemplated and, after leaving public office in 1992, she became a board member of the adult learning organisation Aontas and the Irish Family Planning Association. A supporter of abortion rights for women, she spoke publicly about her hope that what happened to the Indian-born, Galway-based dentist Savita Halappanavar would never happen in Ireland again, and that women who come here are never again forced to give birth against their will.
In her latter years, Meehan also took up the cause of rights for older people. She became a founder-member and later president of the Senior Citizens’ Parliament and a board member of Age and Opportunity. In that role, she helped lead the protests against the removal of medical cards from the over-70s. In fact, she herself was refused the medical card because her income and small savings were just above the means-tested limit. Here again, as with her determination for women to have equal pay to men as a widow with five young children, Meehan became the voice for difficulties people faced because they were hers too.
Her health declined in recent years and a stroke in 2015 prompted a move in 2016 to St Mary’s Residential Centre, Shantalla Road, Galway, near her daughter Sarah’s home.
President Michael D Higgins, who attended the humanist ceremony in Dublin to mark her death, said that her pioneering work on equality in education and employment has left a lasting legacy. “In her life, Sylvia Meehan overcame many challenges, becoming a tenacious campaigner for workers’ rights, determined to promote the inclusion and empowerment of women, older people and all vulnerable sections of society.”
Sylvia Meehan is survived by her five children, John, Niall, Sarah, Richard and Rosa, her brother Raymond, sister Rosa, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Her husband, Denis, died from cancer in 1969.