Two women in New York coined the phrase The Glass Ceiling while here in Ireland, the Boomtown Rats, Pope John Paul, Mountbatten and the birth of the Irish Punt made 1979 an extraordinary year that changed the course of history.
It’s July 1979 and I’m staring upwards at the impossibly high vaulted ceiling of Aughrim Street Church in Stoneybatter. A brilliant blue canopy crossed with white rafters. I wondered how it was possible to maintain the vivid blue and pristine white ceiling seeing as there was no visible means of reaching it. There was a reason why I was gazing heavenwards and it had less to do with my religious fervour and more to do with an event that had happened across the Atlantic in New York. Someone had put a name to something I didn’t fully understand and it had to do with ceilings. It was a term that I grew to know and loathe in decades to come. Before I tell you the name (a household one by now) let me put Ireland in 1979 in context. That year is imprinted on my mind for many reasons.
We had joined the European Monetary Union a few months earlier and ditched parity with UK sterling in favour of the Irish punt. I will never forget my birthday that year because on August 27th Lord Louis Mountbatten, his grandson and two others including a local boy John Maxwell were killed when the IRA blew up his fishing boat in the sea at Mulloughmore in Sligo just a few miles from where my mother comes from. It was a village we knew well. Just a few hours later my father gathered us to watch the news of the Warrenpoint Massacre the deadliest attack on the British army in the history of the troubles -18 soldiers were killed. The Taoiseach was Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey was elected leader of Fianna Fail. Maire Geoghegan-Quinn became Minister for the Gaelteacht – the first woman to enter the cabinet in the history of the state. Aer Lingus had a new pilot – and she was a woman, Grainne Cronin, also a first. A few days previously “I don’t like Mondays” was released by the Boomtown Rats and Amy Huberman was just four months old. The country was excited about the first ever visit by a pontiff with the expected arrival of Pope John Paul II in September. That visit also left a lasting legacy on the state which I will return to at the end of my musings on the church, politics, women and the root of all our problems. By any measure 1979 was an eventful year.
But while we were heralding these significant milestones in Irish life a group of women at The National Press Club in Manhattan coined the phrase “The Glass Ceiling”. Specifically Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard and her colleague Maryanne Schreiber. I grew to hate that term over the years. Trotted out at every conference and thrown around the board room table whenever the vexed question of women’s equality was raised. It’s a simplistic notion that belies the complexity and magnitude of the obstacles to women’s advancement – especially here in Ireland. That vaulted ceiling in Aughrim Street Church is much closer to the reality – propped by smooth pillars impossible to scale with no visible stairs or scaffolding to ease the journey upwards.
When I began to write about women in Ireland throughout the past 100 years I underestimated the enormity of the challenge and how angry I would become at the injustices meted out to women by our politicians, the church and society. It was the European Economic Community (EEC) that dragged our reluctant government kicking and screaming towards equality. If you ever wonder why we are the second worst country in Europe for gender diversity on Boards, and if you raised an eyebrow when it emerged earlier this year that we have increased not decreased pay inequality between men and women in Ireland (men earn 14.4% more than women compared to 12.6% in 2012), or that the majority of the lowest paid in Ireland are women (50% of working women earn less that €20,000) then take a walk back in time through the history of the state and wonder no more.
I consider myself to have a fair grasp of Irish history but it turns out I didn’t know the half of it – the bit that was concerned solely with keeping women out of employment, public life, the judicial system, politics, bars, clubs, golf courses – indeed anywhere they might exert undue influence or hinder the prospects of the male population. While women, my own grandmother included, took up arms and fought side by side with men during the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and in the bitterly divisive Civil War their reward for playing their part in ridding the country of oppression was to spend decades being oppressed by their own. It was our misfortune that the first two leaders of the Irish Free State were conservative misogynists who pushed Irish women back to the Victorian era and through policies, legislation and oration placed a generation of Irish women under house arrest in their own homes. A woman’s place was relegated to the role of housewife, baby-maker, unpaid care-giver, a role where they supported husbands, nurtured sons to be the leaders of the futures and tutored daughters in how to be dutiful wives. WT (Liam) Cosgrave presided over the first decade of the state and the newly formed Cumann na nGaedheal (later to become Fine Gael). Various historians label him as a quiet conservative, a devout catholic, and a stabling influence during the turbulent years of the new state. You have to delve a little deeper to unearth his systematic undoing of the promise of gender equality enshrined in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916.
“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”
While Cosgrave and his government eroded that declaration of equality through the removal of women from juries and a restriction on women sitting entry exams for senior positions in the civil service, 21 years later Eamon de Valera enshrined women’s status in the home in the 1937 Constitution. As in the first Constitution of 1922 women had the right to vote and to stand for election to the Dail, however article 41.2 was regressive and patronising to women. It remains in our constitution to this day despite the Constitutional Convention recommending that the wording should be “gender neutral” and incorporate a role for women within the home and beyond the home.
- In particular the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
- The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties within the home
Not only were the clauses limiting in terms of women’s contribution in later years they gave justification to discriminatory social welfare and tax laws. It gave the government the freedom to remove women from employment in teaching and the civil service when they married
And while the new constitution acknowledged that all citizens were equal, de Valera wanted to insert an out-clause: “This shall not be held to mean that the State shall not in its enactments have due regard to differences of capacity, physical and moral, and social function”.
There was an outcry from women’s organisations here and internationally at the insertion of these clauses and while de Valera was forced to drop the latter one he never veered from its intent.
From the 1930s to the 1970s others picked up the baton handed on from Cosgrave to de Valera’s and it was only through the persistence of some courageous women and our entry into the EEC in 1973 that change happened at all. The marriage bar ended that year, followed in 1977 by an end to discrimination in employment on the grounds of sex (The Unfair Dismissals Act). As evidence of how reluctant the Irish government of the time was in effecting change is the fact that they sought derogation from Europe in order to avoid enacting equal pay legislation. Women were paid about half the salaries of men at that time and the government claimed it couldn’t afford to change the law.
There were some milestones, hard won, for women during those decades. Women were finally allowed to take control of their own property in 1957 (The Married Women’s Status Act) and in 1958 they were allowed to become Ban Ghardai. In 1964 women were given equal guardianship rights to men under the Guardianship of Infants Act and the same year we joined the EEC and saw the end of the marriage bar. The establishment of the Council for the Status of Women and the deserted wives and unmarried mother’s benefits were introduced. A woman I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from, Mella Carroll, became the first woman to be appointed as a High Court Judge in 1980. A year later The Criminal Law [Rape] Act was passed. The story of the right to contraception began with The Family Planning [Amendment] Act, passed in 1985, which gave women (and indeed all adults) the legal right of access to contraceptives. That same year women finally achieved parity with men in terms of social security (the long delay in implementing this act led to the High Court forcing the state to pay arrears to over 70,000 married women in 1995). Fast forward five years to 1990 and Ireland had its first woman president Mary Robinson – followed by a second, Mary McAleese. By 1997 divorce was possible in Ireland with The Family Law (Divorce) Act and last year Ireland voted for Marriage Equality.
Finally I want to turn to the most controversial of issues, that of abortion. For the past 35 years and over the course of three referenda (1983, 1992 and 2002) this has been the most divisive issue in Ireland. And it started right back where I began this tale of woe of women in Ireland – in 1979 and the momentous visit of Pope John Paul II.
Just a few months after I was sitting in Aughrim Street church wondering how a ceiling could be glass I was one of a million people gathered in the Phoenix Park, (where I grew up), to witness the historic visit by Paul John Paul II. He was a powerful orator, he spoke of peace and an end to the violence that was tearing Ireland apart. The death of Lord Mountbatten and the deaths at Warrenpoint were fresh in our minds. I have long since joined an army of lapsed Catholics but I will never forget the connectedness and emotion of that visit and particularly his message to us…the young people of Ireland. He had travelled to Galway and these words were beamed into our sitting room and our hearts:
I believe in youth with all my heart and all the strength of my conviction. And today I say: I believe in the youth of Ireland. I believe in you who stand here before me, in every one of you. When I look at you, I see the Ireland of the future. Tomorrow you will be the living force of your country, you will decide what Ireland will be. Tomorrow, as technicians or teachers, nurses or secretaries, farmers or tradesmen, doctors or engineers, priests or religious – tomorrow you will have the power to make dreams come true.
What the Church will be in the future depends on your free cooperation with God’s grace.
He finished his address with an impassioned “Young people of Ireland, I love you! Young people of Ireland, I bless you! I bless you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
It was a call to action which resonated with his plea to the adult population for Ireland to lead the way in Christian family values. Over three million people – nearly two thirds of the population of Ireland – heard Pope John Paul speak over three venues. Such was his influence, the following year one in ten Irish boy babies were called John Paul. Ireland likes to take on a challenge and for a section of Irish society the Pope’s rallying call struck home and the early genesis of a heave to change Ireland’s constitution to lead the way for the world took hold.
After polarised debate and entrenched views from both sides the Eight Amendment to the Irish constitution (Article 40.3.3) was passed in 1983 giving constitutional protection to the unborn child. It reads:
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.
The controversy over abortion legislation continues. It’s been the subject of referenda in 1983, in 1992, and in 2002. The outcry following the death of Savita Hallapanavar led to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. The new law allows for abortion under certain circumstances – if the life of the mother is at risk either physical or from suicide. But confusion remains. Last year a United Nations committee (The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) recommended that a further referendum be held on abortion in Ireland to clarify what constitutes a real substantive risk to the life of a pregnant woman. Abortion and in particular a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment will be a significant issue for the new government (whenever we have one).
So for me 1979 set many events in train that changed us for ever. Travelling back in time is critical to understanding why we are where we are today but travelling into the future allows us to shape the journey still to come. Let’s work together to chart a new course for women.