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Mansplainers are in full ‘listen ladies!’ voice, telling us we’re reading it all wrong as referendum nears

The mansplainers are in full ‘listen ladies!’ voice, telling us we’re reading the thing all wrong

In the treasure trove that comprises John Charles McQuaid’s papers lies a note from the future Catholic Archbishop of Dublin to his buddy, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, observing that “the feminists are getting angry” about the draft 1937 Constitution. “They seem stung by the suggestion that the normal place for a woman is the home,” wrote the celibate who cast a long shadow over Bunreacht na hÉireann.

McQuaid’s note did not dispute the feminists’ interpretation that article 41.2 deemed a woman’s place to be inside her own four walls when it said that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. On the contrary, his words condescendingly imply that the feminists’ real mistake was in presuming women might conceivably have any existence other than as the woman-behind-her-man.

McQuaid’s biographer, John Cooney, has described the churchman as the “co-maker” of the Constitution who daily “bombarded” Dev with suggestions for the document. Ergo, it is revisionism gone mad to argue 87 years later that article 41.2 does not mean women’s “normal place” is at the kitchen sink.

As we approach the March 8th referendum on deleting this article, the mansplainers are in full “listen ladies!” voice, telling us we’re reading the thing all wrong and finding prejudice, inequality, discrimination, exceptionalism, reductiveness, sexism, paternalism and offensiveness where none exists. They inform us with the authority of their male life experiences that article 41.2 has made no difference to women with jobs outside the home, ignoring any philosophical or psychological trickle-through effect on society’s attitudes.


This is an old canard. Maria Luddy, writing in “A ‘Sinister and Retrogressive’ Proposal: Irish Women’s Opposition to the 1937 Draft Constitution,” recalls establishment commentators accusing women campaigners at the time of “deliberately distorting the character and content of the Constitution”. But who are the real distorters? Surely not all those male politicians who, one would expect, were familiar with the Constitution and made Dáil Éireann’s working hours so hostile to family life that they have precluded proportionate representation of women in parliament?

What has come as a shock is the chorus of women vowing to vote against the deletion of a clause that, in 1937, Sinn Féin president Margaret Buckley blasted for treating women “as if they were halfwits”. Already, the debate is exposing an age-old fissure between women that has, historically, facilitated discrimination against the female sex. On one side are the caricature “feminists” with their “progressive waffle”. On the other side are the equally cartoonish dutiful wives, polishing their hunter-men’s cudgels. It is a split reminiscent of Brendan Behan’s starting point for every political alliance.

Until now, it seemed there was near consensus that the woman-in-the home article is repugnant to the Proclamation’s vision of a republic of equal opportunities for all. As long ago as 1996, the Constitution Review Group said it should be expunged. A Constitutional Convention in 2013 again recommended its repeal. The following year, the UN Committee on Human Rights castigated it, prompting the government, in 2016, to promise a referendum. Surprise, surprise, it didn’t happen. In 2017, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission told the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women that the provision perpetuated “stereotypical attitudes to women in Irish society”. A Citizens’ Assembly repeated the recommendation for a referendum in 2021, as did an Oireachtas committee on gender equality in 2022.

Combining the question on deleting article 41.2 on referendum day with a separate proposal to insert a new clause supporting carers in the home has complicated the issue. Had politicians not revoked the law providing for civil partnerships after the successful referendum on marriage equality, this might be a less complicated matter now. Besides, any couples in loving relationships who cannot or do not want to marry should be afforded the legal right to register domestic partnership contracts and avail of concomitant taxation, property and social welfare entitlements.

The complication of rewording the definition of the family as part of the referendum, however, is not the reason why many women want to retain article 41.2. Several have had their say in the letters page of this newspaper, mostly declaring that they value Bunreacht na hÉireann’s protection for their lives in the home or arguing that they have enjoyed careers outside the home without encountering any impediment. One has to ask: how do they know? What yardstick is used to measure the seminal influence the constitutional provision has had on the gender pay gap, female representation in public life, on company boards and on corporate promotions?

To those women who wish to keep the article, the obvious question is this: what good does it do the women with no homes? What good did it do for Brigid McCole, Ann Lovett, Eileen Flynn, Joanne Hayes, Christine Buckley, Vicky Phelan, Philomena Lee? What good did it do for the mothers who were locked up in Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes and had their children stolen from them for export or used without their knowledge or consent in vaccine trials?

The answer is: absolutely nothing. Because article 41.2 is nothing but a patronising pat on the head or, as the trade union leader Louie Bennett saw it in 1937, a “vague and chivalrous sentiment”.

Here’s another question. Why does the Constitution elevate the role of women in the home for their contribution to the welfare of the state to the exclusion of women teaching or giving medical treatment to their children? The provision is not just anathema. It is nonsensical.

It does more harm than good, not least with its innuendo that fathers are absent parents surplus to society’s requirements. Why are you men not up in arms about that?

But its most damaging consequence of all is that it creates a hierarchy of Irish womanhood, setting sister against sister. Let’s not fall for the divide-and-conquer ruse this time. Let us women walk in each other’s shoes to the polling station and get rid of the abominable thing once and for all.

This article was amended on January 19th, 2024