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Ireland’s shameful history, attempting to hide away single mothers, needs to be addressed

The necessity of care of children should be recognised and valued in our Constitution, but not as something that is the sole remit of women

I always thought my grandmother would have made an excellent detective. Not one for idle gossip, she still held detailed information on everyday comings and goings of those around her, both at home and abroad. Seventy years on, she could remember the addresses of where she lived in Scotland, England and America as a young woman, and the name of the antique shop in London where she bought an often admired ring several decades ago. I like to imagine what heights she would have scaled to had she lived in a different time in Ireland, a time when she could have continued working outside the home after she got married. While I often turned to her for advice and feedback on goings-on in my life, navigating the workplace was an area she could, unfortunately, not counsel me on.

This is a loss that we’ve hardly begun to recognise in Ireland. While there is a small number of highly successful women in their 70s who managed, against all odds and challenges, to break through the glass ceilings of industry, public service and the judiciary, there is a generation before them that have been completely absent from public life. That’s without even considering the thousands of women who emigrated in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (and unlike my grandmother never returned) to avoid the marriage bar.

The marriage bar, which for half a century prohibited married women from working in the Irish Civil Service, was not enshrined in our Constitution but the value system that enabled it certainly was, and still is.

The legacy of article 41.2 is not one we can be proud of. Written in a time when religious leaders seemed to hold more power than elected representatives, it was railed against by women’s groups of the 1930s; their voices duly ignored by the powers that be. Their ambitions to be part of economic and social life in Ireland considered undutiful, unmoral, unladylike. When I learned of this part of our Constitution as a teenager I was incensed. Why should my future be outlined in the values of the State, but not those of my five brothers? Why should I be made to feel rebellious to want to study physics and not solely have ambitions to look after my (then hypothetical) children?

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While marriage will still be protected and still hold special value in law, the proposed new wording in our Constitution will give different types of family a place in the core values of our country

Being a mother is one of the greatest privileges and joys of my life, but I’m very grateful that Ireland’s membership of the EU required a cessation of the marriage bar. While I have absolute respect for any parent who chooses to be at home with their children, that’s a choice that should not be inferred, no matter how empty its imposition at present, by the State.

The necessity of care of children, and that of parents and other loved ones, should be recognised and valued in our Constitution, but not as something that is the sole remit of women. I, for one, happily share the care work in our home with my husband. My brothers and I consider the potential care of our parents as a shared responsibility, not just mine as the only girl. This is not something which is necessarily radical or different but it is something which, as a wider society, we should continue to support and aspire to. It’s why I will be voting Yes.

I’ll also be voting Yes to recognise families beyond those solely based on marriage. Ireland’s shameful history, attempting to hide away single mothers, needs to be addressed. Single-parent families, cohabiting couples, grandparents looking after children, “teaghlaigh” or households broadly defined in our native tongue, all deserve to be recognised as “family”. While marriage will still be protected and still hold special value in law, the proposed new wording in our Constitution will give different types of family a place in the core values of our country.

I miss discussing this referendum with my granny. I enjoyed many conversations at the kitchen table with her in advance of previous referendums which have brought Ireland’s Constitution into the 21st century. She has passed away and I don’t want to suppose how she would vote, but considering how proud she was of her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters, I imagine she would be voting to support them in their families and lives outside the home. I’ll be joining with family carers, people with disabilities, lone parents and cohabiting families, along with many other individuals and groups, to vote Yes Yes on March 8th.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is associate professor in UCD School of Mathematics & Statistics