Women's equality is a double-edged sword

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Women's equality is a double-edged sword

MAYBE it’s because of my advancing years, but all this tinkering with the Constitution is beginning to unnerve me.

Dev’s aspirations are being dashed before our very eyes and nobody is even batting an eyelid. I don’t know why I give a damn either, seeing that I never really felt at home in that dreary Eden in the first place, but I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.

However, even a dinosaur like myself has to recognise that society has changed dramatically, and, with that in mind, I’d be all for dumping the Constitution altogether and writing up a totally new one to suit our new found urbanity – except that I have this uneasy feeling in my guts that we might be even more delusional and disingenuous now than we were 80 years ago.

I never really studied the Constitution, mainly out of sheer laziness and a heartfelt antipathy to pious aspirations, but also because I trusted the compilers to protect my citizenship and all that this implied. I felt doubly assured as a woman because of my special guaranteed status in the home which surely meant that I’d never see a poor day again. I’d never be obliged to ‘engage in labour to the neglect of my duties in the home’. Presumably I’d never have to fight for Ireland either if it meant having to engage the services of a cleaner, while I was away gallivanting. Come to think of it, the only real threat of conscription hanging over me under the Constitution was the cross roads dance.

Now some feminists want to remove the ‘woman’s place in the home’ clause from the Constitution, simply because they see it as an anachronism in this day and age. I don’t know why they had to wait for this day and age to discover the anachronism. They were always railing against women being chained to the kitchen sink, even at a time when some women didn’t have a kitchen sink, but I don’t ever recall any of them tackling the Constitutional clause that defined women for generations. An anachronism in any day and age isn’t all bad, it seems.

Fine Gael TD, Josepha Madigan - the woman who also wants special property tax concessions for her neighbours in South County Dublin because of the size and value of their mansions and sees nothing anachronistic about her proposals - is leading the charge for a Referendum to blitz the woman’s place from the Constitution. Not everyone is with her however, and more women than men want the irksome clause to remain, which to my mind indicates that some of us are still institutionalised by the much maligned, but now top of the range, kitchen sink.

But there is an even bigger issue at stake – the alimony. The Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon, points out that in the case of marriage breakdown, a dependent spouse fares better in Ireland than in virtually any other jurisdiction in the world, thanks to the Constitutional clause which put the woman in her place. This irony is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences at work, because I doubt if the original writers of the Constitution ever even envisaged such a scenario, not to talk of making provision for it.

The feminists can’t have it both ways. They can’t have their cake and eat it, and they certainly can’t expect to be able to climb, on air-cushioned quota head-starts, over more talented members of the opposite sex in the race to the top - while at the same time maintaining a Constitutional right to dependency and a special place in the home.

My views are coloured naturally by where I come from – a time when women were forced, on marriage, to quit what were supposed to have been secure and pensionable posts in the public service and become dependent housewives dedicated to what the Constitution described as ‘the common good’. There was no real compensation apart from a small marriage gratuity if you had worked for at least five years, but for many working women at the time, it was the only dowry they had and they couldn’t even splurge it on themselves in a final toast to their vanishing independence.

As I said, there was no Constitutional challenge at the time from either the feminists – who continued to use the kitchen sink as their symbol of slavery – or the trade unionists, who were concentrating all their efforts on providing and maintaining jobs for the main bread winner in Sean Lemass’s industrial utopia.

The annoying thing about the woman’s constitutional place in the home was that no-one ever inspected it to see if it was fit for purpose, and obviously for many women it wasn’t. On the other hand, some of us weren’t even qualified to run a household, despite having been taught by the nuns in domestic economy classes how to cook a stuffed sheep’s heart for dinner in case the bread winner found himself unable to provide a prime cut. I remember, as a child, feeling that I really ought to abandon the marriage stakes altogether, after overhearing a female relative solemnly informing another family member that I couldn’t ‘even wash a cup’.

For all that, if Josepha gets her way and we have a Referendum on the woman’s place in the home, I think I’ll vote to have it removed. Not because it’s an anachronism or an insult to women, mind you, but out of a sense of fairness. As I said, we can’t have it both ways, and anyway I worked outside the home all my life and reared three children without any recognition from a Constitution that outrageously declared, and continues to declare, the following: ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, a woman gives the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’