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Understanding Women’s Reactions to the 1937 Irish Constitution

A 2,000 word essay for History 2132: Ireland Since 1900, a course at the University of Dublin: Trinity College. This essay received a mark of 75, First Class HonorsWritten 20 March 2011.

A cursory study of the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann might evoke a passionate twenty-first century rebuke of the articles defining the role and rights of women in the middle of the last century. Indeed, a careless review of the document may suggest that contemporary[1] women were stifled and unable to voice their opinions – for if they had an outlet, then surely no sphere of domesticity or ban on divorce would have survived the referendum. If able to speak, they would fully embrace our modern sensibilities regarding gender equality and gender roles. They would have condemned the thinly veiled sexism motivating Éamon de Valera’s celebration of women as housewives. However, as with any review of historical documents, the context of the day must receive ample consideration. As argued by several female historians and as evidenced by editorials and letters, our modern complaints received little (if any) attention by the educated, organised, and vocal women of the day. At a time of economic crisis, employment for survival, not crusades for equal rights, received their attention. In understanding that motivation, one is able to contextualise their economic-focused reaction to the Constitution. Before addressing the clauses of concern in the Bunreacht na hÉireann, previous acts will be considered to further appreciate the concerns of women at the time.

Prior to the drafting of the Constitution, the Orieachtas enacted a marriage bar for civil servants (1932), a ban on contraceptives (1934), and a limit on female employment in industry (1935). However, before condemning the bar , comparative study indicates that such limits were ‘common in many European countries’[2] and while commonality does not indicate sentiment, Professor Caitriona Clear of the National University Ireland, Galway found that ‘women’s organisations did not come out strongly against the marriage bar.’[3] Regarding the ban on contraceptives, Professor Caitriona Beaumont of London South Bank University notes that ‘women’s organisations did not object’ when the ‘controversial clause’ in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act was debated.[4] As for the 1935 Conditions of Employment Act, which limited female employment in industry, Professor Mary Daly of University College Dublin, found that most female trade unions ‘enthusiastically supported the restrictions.’[5] As surprising as those stances are today, with the organizations tasked with upholding female labour rights failing to oppose both the marriage bar and industry restrictions, and with contemporary women remaining silent on contraception, they highlight differences between the concerns of contemporary women and modern feminism. Employment will be addressed again, but first the controversial clauses of the Constitution will be discussed.

The role of women is emphasised in the Bunreacht na hÉireann via Article 41, titled ‘The Family.’ In that Article the family is described as the ‘natural, primary and fundamental unit group of Society,’[6] with the spectre of female domesticity outlined by the primacy of ‘her life within the home’ which sustains the ‘common good’[7] of society. Without female domesticity, the state argued, via the clause, that society would be made unsustainable and economically unsound. To that end, the earlier codification that ‘all citizens’ are ‘equal before the law’[8]was overwritten by the state’s ‘endeavour’ to prevent mothers from needing to ‘engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’[9] In addition, the Article pre-emptively nullified any law which would enable the ‘dissolution of marriage.’[10] That ban on divorce and obligation for women to remain caretakers of the home and family conflicts with the modern recognition of diverse family structures and support for the universal breadwinner model. However, today’s conception of the domestic sphere differed with that of the past.

That difference is noted by Psychologist Patricia Redlich, who warns that ‘the role and status of the woman within the family’ must reflect the ‘current socioeconomic conditions’ of the period, as the family is ‘not an isolated unit but an integral part of the fabric of society.’[11] Those socioeconomic conditions are addressed by Beaumont who argues that contemporary women struggled to feed and clothe their families’ and had little time to concern themselves with the ‘abstract concept’ of gender equality. [12] Moreover when such time existed, responses to gender roles would not necessarily reflect the same opinions expected today. For example, Marie de Blacam, a contemporary college-educated woman, was satisfied with the roles presented in the Constitution. In a editorial published in the Irish Independent she states that she refused to protest the Constitution as the document seeks to ‘protect the father of the family as the breadwinner, and the mother as the home-maker’ in accordance with the ‘interests of Christian society.’[13] Furthermore, even though the Irish Women Workers’ Union criticised the codification of a woman’s place at home, in a manifesto published in the Irish Press, the criticism was articulated because the statement was ‘superfluous’ since women would ‘prefer concrete proposals’ to ‘release them from the pressure of economic necessity to work outside of the home’ rather than ‘vague and chivalrous sentiments’ in the Constitution.[14] Clear concurs with that sentiment, as she asserts that the inclusion of the ‘idealised’ domestic sphere was designed, not to codify gender roles, but to avoid discussing the economic need behind ‘gender specific labour legislation.’[15] That economic need reflected the high levels of male unemployment during the depression, which in turn influenced contemporary female opinions toward equal employment opportunities.

The motivation to improve male employment by restricting female participation in the labour market is argued to encompass not just the Constitution but the marriage bar and Conditions of Employment Act. Clear suggests that the ‘substantial infringements on women’s rights’ were not ‘as a result of a prevailing ideology of domesticity,’ but rather, as was the case with the marriage bar, ‘to make jobs available for young, single women and men.’[16] In the same vein, Daly suggests that the few who supported equal pay did so, not to confront gender roles, but because ‘they feared that lower paid women would displace male workers.’[17] Such a sentiment is shared by J. Walsh, an Ulster Bank employee, in his letter to de Valera. He disparages women criticising the Constitution as needing to be sent ‘back to the home where they belong,’ not as akin to modern sexism, but since limits to female employment were justified to ‘solve the male unemployment problem.’[18] His blunt tone is evidence for Daly’s statement that ‘attitudes toward working women were extremely hostile’ especially in the climate of job shortages.’[19]  She notes that the hostility is pervasive among women too, and quotes Louie Bennett, a prominent figure in the Irish Women Workers’ Union, who stated that women in industry were “a menace to family life” and “intensified poverty among the working class” by creating male unemployment.[20] In addition, Daly notes that at IWWU meetings the employment of married women was regularly debated and never resolved.[21] It is through that lens of employment, not gender equality or modern feminism, that women voiced their criticisms of the Constitution.

Those criticisms were directed at ambiguous clauses in the Constitution that could promote additional restrictions to female labour market participation. In a letter to de Valera, Dorothy Marcadle presents a reasonable request to protect participation as a right with caveats. In particular, she provides a clause to insert in Article 45 ‘Directive Principles of Social Policy’ to ‘safeguard women’s rights.’ [22] In the suggested clause,[23] the absence of modern antagonisms is present in her qualifications of ‘unfair discrimination’ and ‘sole ground of sex.’[24] Consistent with the views of her peers, she provides de Valera with loopholes via each phrase to ensure that some fair discrimination against female employment would be permissible given a range of grounds such as ‘possession of other sources of income,’ ‘motherhood,’ and ‘necessity for supporting dependents.’[25] In essence, she provides a reasonable compromise given the prevailing sentiments of her time, which does not attack the sphere of domesticity nor mention social rights that many today would find glaring in their absence. Even though she was an active revolutionary and early supporter of de Valera,[26] Macardle’s views are nonetheless similar to her contemporaries who do not share the same association.

In an editorial published in the Irish Press, a newspaper owned by de Valera, the author Moirin Cheavasa presents a similar measured tone and concern that interpretations of the document may ‘deprive’ women of access to ‘certain occupations,’ regardless of their economic need,  ‘without infringing on the constitution.’[27] In addition, while Louie Bennett hopes that Article 40.1 references ‘lunatics and criminals’ when qualifying the equality to which all citizens are entitled, she nonetheless expresses the union’s ‘apprehension’ regarding other interpretations of legal discrimination based on ‘differences of capacity, physical and moral.’[28] As noted earlier, Bennett and the IWWU were primarily concerned with the right for women to earn a wage due to economic need, rather than for married women to break contemporary gender roles. As in Cheavasa’s letter, Bennett avoids any reference to those gender roles or divorce. Moreover, the two women’s published opinions, along with those of Blacam and of the IWWU, conflict with modern assumptions, highlighted by Clear, that ‘women were completely powerless and silenced’ in the years of de Valera’s Ireland.[29] Indeed the decision by the editor of the Irish Press to publish editorials critical of the document, associated with the owner of the newspaper, underscores women’s access to media and ability to voice their opinions.

After reviewing the context surrounding the Bunreacht na hÉireann, the contemporary reactions by women can be better understood without resorting to ‘anachronistic’ and ‘present-day feminist beliefs.’[30] Those reactions present a picture of women living during a period of economic hardship, where men were expected by both genders to provide a breadwinner’s wage to sustain the family, but where women needed to enter the workforce when that wage was nonexistent or insufficient. Absent from criticisms of the Constitution are attacks against the fundamental assertion that women should remain at home and that divorce should be legal. In addition, any modern sexist notion of the sphere of domesticity was undermined by the underlying goal to reduce male unemployment. As a result, clauses that are sexist today were designed for pragmatic aims that superseded any perceived gender inferiority, while those clauses which received attention by contemporary women were opposed due to the ambiguity concerning employment opportunity, as a result of economic need, rather than for a modern conception of gender equality.

 Works Cited

Beaumount, Caitriona, ‘Women & the Politics of Equality: The Irish Women’s Movement 1930-1943’ in Maryann Valiulis and Mary O’Dowd (eds), Women and Irish History (Dublin, 1997)

Bennett, Louie, Irish Press, 18 May 1937

Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937

Cheavasa, Moirin, Irish Press, 20 May 1937

Clear, Caitriona, ‘Women in de Valera’s Ireland 1932-48: a reappraisal’ in Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (eds), De Valera’s Irelands (Cork, 2003)

Daly, Mary E, Women and Work in Ireland (Dundalk, 1997)

Daly, Mary E, ‘Women, Work and Trade Unionism’ in Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha Ó Corráin (eds), Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (Dublin, 1979)

de Blacam, Marie, Irish Independent, 25 June 1937

Granville, David, Irish Democrat, ‘De Valera’s betrayal of the women of 1916’ (http://www.irishdemocrat.co.uk/) (22 Feb. 2011)

Irish Women Workers’ Union, Irish Press, 8 June 1937

Letter from Dorothy Macardle to de Valera, 21 May 1937 (National Archives of Ireland, s9880)

Letter from J. Walsh to de Valera, 15 May 1937 (National Archives of Ireland, s9880)

Redlich, Patricia, ‘Women and The Family’ in Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha Ó Corráin (eds), Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (Dublin, 1979), p 82


[1] For the purposes of this essay, ‘contemporary’ refers to individuals from the 1930s with ‘modern’ referring to individuals from the 1970s to the present

[2] Mary E. Daly, Women and Work in Ireland (Dundalk, 1997), p 50

[3] Caitriona Clear, ‘Women in de Valera’s Ireland 1932-48: a reappraisal’ in Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (eds), De Valera’s Irelands (Cork, 2003), p 107

[4] Caitriona Beaumount, ‘Women & the Politics of Equality: The Irish Women’s Movement 1930-1943’ in Maryann Valiulis and Mary O’Dowd (eds), Women and Irish History (Dublin, 1997), p 178

[5] Daly, 1997, p 48

[6] Bunreacht na hÉireann, 1937, Article 41.1.1

[7] Article 41.2.1, 1937

[8] Article 40.1, 1937

[9] Article 41.2, 1937

[10] Article 41.3.2, 1937

[11] Patricia Redlich, ‘Women and The Family’ in Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha Ó Corráin (eds), Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (Dublin, 1979), p 82

[12] Beaumont, 1997, p 184

[13] Marie de Blacam, Irish Independent, 25 June 1937

[14] Irish Women Workers’ Union, Irish Press, 8 June 1937

[15] Clear, 2003, p 114

[16] Clear, 2003, p 107

[17] Mary E. Daly, ‘Women, Work and Trade Unionism’ in Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha Ó Corráin (eds), Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (Dublin, 1979) p 76

[18] Letter from J. Walsh to de Valera, 15 May 1937 (National Archives of Ireland, s9880)

[19] Daly, 1979, p 77

[20] Daly, 1979, p 75

[21] Daly, 1979, p 75

[22] Letter from Dorothy Macardle to de Valera, 21 May 1937 (National Archives of Ireland, s9880)

[23] ‘The State shall endeavour to secure that neither in opportunities for employment nor in conditions of employment shall women suffer unfair discrimination on the sole ground of sex.’ (emphasis added)

[24] Dorothy Macardle, 1937

[25] Dorothy Macardle, 1937

[26] David Granville, Irish Democrat, ‘De Valera’s betrayal of the women of 1916’ (http://www.irishdemocrat.co.uk/) (22 Feb. 2011)

[27] Moirin Cheavasa, Irish Press, 20 May 1937

[28] Louie Bennett, Irish Press, 18 May 1937

[29] Clear, 2003, p 104

[30] Daly, 1979, p 75

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