On the road to change: Oppression of women in Ireland

Many restrictions placed on women have gone but remnants of past sentiment remain

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home in Co Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The 1916 Proclamation of Independence promised “equal rights and equal opportunities” to all citizens, with the subsequent establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 regarded with optimism from feminist groups.

This was reflected in the words of social justice campaigner Ester Roper, "never had there been such a firm foundation of justice and freedom guaranteed by any countries to its women citizens".

However, within the following two decades, the rights and freedoms of women were progressively eroded, with legislation such as the Marriage Bar of 1932, criminalisation of contraception in 1935 and a divorce ban in 1937 restricting the freedom of the Irish woman to earn independently of her husband, plan her family and exit unhappy or abusive marriages, respectively.

This inferiority was confirmed in the 1937 constitution drafted by De Valera, stating that the role of women was limited solely to wife and mother. A combination of a growing influence of the Catholic Church in addition to the conservative Catholic ethos of the first government, Cumann na nGaedheal is arguably a significant factor that spurred this societal shift.



Throughout the 1920s censorship was imposed on films considered indecent, obscene or blasphemous, and on societally indecent books and writings with the Censorship of Publications Act. A radio address given by de Valera in 1943 entitled “On Language & the Irish nation” has been criticised for placing the traditional role on women of housemaker and mother;

“…a land… whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age…”

The Catholic church stated in the Rerum Novarum of 1891, “…a woman is by her nature fitted for home work and it is this which is best adapted to preserve her modesty and promote the good upbringing of children and the wellbeing of the family…”.

An Irish Catholic bishop’s pastoral in 1927 reflects this sentiment, “…traps for the innocent are chiefly the dance hall, the bad book, the indecent paper, the motion picture, the immodest fashion in female dress...”.

The "Mary Immaculate Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade", launched in the late 1920s, aimed to save "Irish maidenhood from the grip of the pagan world". Additionally, women were instructed not to smoke, talk loudly, dance immodestly or attend cinema and plays.

Nationwide unemployment in 1936 yielded the Employment Act, which imposed restrictions on the number of women working in any particular industry to liberate space for men, undermining their position in the workplace.

‘Fallen women’

Mass institutionalisation of “fallen women” for reasons including rape and pregnancy outside of marriage became normalised. Mother and baby homes provided a private environment for unwed mothers to deliver their child, however reports indicate that many were detained for unpaid work.

Magdalene Laundries were an additional provision, incarcerating women and 'bastard' children that strayed from a strict moral expectation. Author James M Smith and historian Frances Finnegan stated that these laundries became ,"particularly cruel", "more secretive" and "emphatically more punitive" and had abandoned rehabilitation in place of containment.

An estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, over a third of whom were admitted since Independence in 1922. The 1997 documentary “Sex in a cold climate” recounted stories of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Child mortality was twice that of the national average, with over 9,000 deaths reported across all mother and baby homes for reasons including malnutrition and neglect. Precise numbers of women and children remain unknown, along with records of what occurred behind closed doors.

The heavy dependence of the Irish economy on agriculture in the early 20th century posed economic difficulties. Traditional Brehon law allocated family land to the eldest son, leaving no choice for remaining siblings other than emigration in search of work.

Census records show a slow decline since independence, hitting a record low of 2.8 million in 1961. Furthermore, the introduction of protectionism by de Valera's government in 1932 hiked the prices of imported goods. Economist TK Whitaker issued a stark warning in 1958 in the face of this economic decline, stating that if the country failed to change course, "…it would be better to make an immediate move into the reincorporation into the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent".

For the first time in decades, Ireland was forced to deviate from the Church-oriented national vision and shifted towards industrialisation, beginning a gradual restoration of women's freedoms. For example, laws including the Marriage Bar and the constitutional bans on divorce and abortion were lifted in 1972, 1996 and 2018 respectively.

Additionally, public opinion of the Catholic church deteriorated, particularly from 2005 with publications including the “Ferns Report”, detailing over 100 allegations of sexual abuse between 1962 and 2002.

Although restrictions placed on women have dissipated, remnants of past sentiment remain today. Women reportedly faced a greater strain than men in balancing work and home-making responsibilities throughout restrictions imposed during Covid-19.

Debates prior to the abortion referendum in 2018 highlighted echoes of traditional beliefs amongst many voters that a woman's right to safety and autonomy comes second to her responsibility as a mother and the right of a foetus. However, despite this ingrained legacy of inequality, as a nation we have taken strides. We appointed our first female president, Mary Robinson in 1990.

The first female provost was elected in Trinity College in April 2021. Ireland is finally emerging from an era of placing shackles on women, a force without which the country is unlikely to have been liberated at all.

In the coming decades, we should have no doubt that tolerance towards traditional and restrictive viewpoints will continue to thin.

* Mairéad Sullivan is a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at University College Dublin