Women’s place in the Constitution

 

Sir, – Commenting on the expected referendum to remove article 41.2, the so-called women in the home provision, The Irish Times wonders: “what the feisty Supreme Court of the 1960s and 1970s would have done had a woman come before it citing the provision as a basis for obliging the State to improve financial support for stay-at-home mothers” (Editorial, June 23rd).

A series of campaigns, report recommendations and election promises to introduce a housewife’s wage had failed to come to fruition. Nevertheless, the State would have had no difficulty providing weighty evidence of its fervent support for women in the home in its social policies.

While marriage bars on female workers where common elsewhere, unique to Ireland a male employee of the State on marriage was transferred to the married man’s pay scale, with improved increments and allowances for each dependent child, in recognition of his duty as a breadwinner.

The State put up extraordinary resistance to implementing the EEC Equal Pay Directive (1975) which outlawed the widespread practice of paying higher pay rates to men for work of equal value based on the assumption all men would at some stage have dependents to support.

Again unique to Ireland, a married man claiming welfare automatically received a top-up payment for his spouse and children regardless of his wife’s financial circumstances, and social insurance contributions provided cover for women abandoned by their husbands against the loss of his financial support.

Social welfare allowances for unmarried mothers and prisoners’ wives with dependent children were introduced in the 1970s to replace the income of the absent breadwinner. Recipients were prohibited from any work outside the home, the payments effectively constituting a wage for stay-at-home mothers. Fathers in similar circumstances were not entitled to these allowances. Attempts to challenge this through the courts failed because article 41.2 was judged to allow for the preferential treatment of mothers in the home.

In a 1979 challenge to the constitutionality of the 1967 Income Tax Act which placed a heavier tax liability on a married woman’s income, the State again cited article 41.2, claiming that laws that encourage married women to remain at home cannot be unconstitutional as this was justified by their particular social functions under the Constitution, but was unsuccessful on this occasion. To give effect to the judgment and going further that what was required by the court, the State undertook, at enormous cost to the Exchequer, measures to ensure the breadwinner family was not at a financial disadvantage to the two-income family.

Readers harbouring a belief that article 41.2 is a dead letter today ought to take a closer look at how we continue to organise our social spending and at the composition of households in poverty. – Yours, etc,

Dr LAURA BAMBRICK,

Ballyfermot, Dublin 10.