Women have come a long way since Nollaig na mBan of 50 years ago

In 1973, contraception and divorce were illegal but marital rape was not, and if you were married you were barred from entering the workforce

This January 6th, people across the country are celebrating a tradition unique to Ireland: Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas. Celebrated mainly in Munster, it was historically the day when men took over the household chores, leaving women free to visit each other and enjoy the last of the Christmas celebrations.

From the men’s point of view, it was a small acknowledgment of the huge effort women put into making Christmas happen. For the women, it was a chance to celebrate each other, the achievement of getting Christmas done, and indeed the achievement of keeping the family and the home going all year round. In many places, ancestors including mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers would have been remembered.

Though the tradition had been dying out somewhat, in recent years it has enjoyed a revival. These days, alongside a well-deserved break after Christmas, Nollaig na mBan has evolved into a celebration of women, and our contribution to our families, communities, and Irish society.

Nollaig na mBan is extra special at the National Women’s Council this year because it marks 50 years since our establishment.

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The year 1973 was a different world for Irish women. On Nollaig na mBan that year, contraception and divorce were illegal but marital rape was not. If you were married, you were legally barred from entering the workforce. If you fell pregnant outside of marriage, at best you might be able to emigrate. At worst, you were imprisoned in a mother and baby home, your child taken from you. If you were gay or trans, you were condemned to a life where you could never fully express your real self.

The contraception train, with its illegal cargo of condom-toting women, chugged into Connolly Station from Belfast in 1971

In the 50 years since, we have seen astounding change. But this change has been slow to come, hard won by the tireless efforts of mná na hÉireann.

The contraception train, with its illegal cargo of condom-toting women, chugged into Connolly Station from Belfast in 1971. But it was not until the 1979 Family Planning Act that a married couple, with a prescription, could access family planning advice and services. Courageous campaigning from women meant condoms became more widely available in 1985, with full legalisation coming in 1992.

Following more campaigning and two referendums, divorce finally became legal in 1996. Equal marriage and the Gender Recognition Act didn’t follow until 2015 after a long struggle by the LGBTQ+ community and a rainbow of allies. Women’s bravery in sharing deeply personal stories and continuous campaigning meant the Eighth Amendment, dating from 1983, was finally repealed and abortion legalised in 2019.

Reproductive rights

Ireland has now come full circle, with contraception freely available for women aged 17-25, and a roll-out to more age cohorts planned. At NWC, we will continue to campaign for reproductive rights until every woman can access abortion when they need it, at home in Ireland.

In 1990, after years of work from women’s rights groups, marital rape became a crime. A full 27 years later, a definition of sexual consent finally entered the legal lexicon. But sexual violence, and all kinds of violence against women, is still a huge scourge on our society. Women, particularly disabled women and migrant women, are too often unsafe on our streets and in their own homes. Last year, the Government introduced a zero-tolerance strategy on violence against women, including prostitution.

The marriage bar stemmed from the same cultural misogyny as Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, which places women’s role in Irish society in ‘the home’

EU accession in 1973 obliged the government of the day to lift the marriage bar. But in 2023 its legacy still leaves many women without the right to a full state pension. And there are still many barriers to women’s equality in the workplace. Women are socialised into lower-paid sectors than men, meaning female graduates start out earning less than their male counterparts, despite generally performing better in academia.

Women also predominantly fill the gap left by the State when it comes to care. It is generally women, often migrant women, who care for elderly relatives, for sick or disabled people, and for children. Unpaid care work means women may have to work part-time, take career breaks, or work irregular shift patterns. This is at the heart of the gender pay gap. It also means men do not get to reap the rewards of caring for their loved ones as much as women do.

The marriage bar stemmed from the same cultural misogyny as Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, which places women’s role in Irish society in “the home” and states that women should not have to neglect their domestic duties in order to take up employment.

A referendum is coming to change this article. Amending it so that the value of care is enshrined in our Constitution could be transformational for our society. Recognising that we all will give and receive care in our lives, and according that a high societal value, with appropriate policies and legislation, would be a leap forward for a feminist future. What a legacy to leave for our daughters and sons.

So this Nollaig na mBan, as we celebrate the immense contribution of women to this country, let’s remember the women who spearheaded these changes. Let’s honour them by continuing to campaign until there is full equality for everyone.

Women, and all of Irish society, deserve nothing less.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council.