As the Citizens’ Assembly reports its findings on the Irish Constitution’s clause on ‘women in the home’, recommending radical action, Marnie Holborow assesses the changing role of women in Irish society, arguing for further mobilisations of the type seen in recent years.
The Citizens’ Assembly, which recently convened in the Republic to review the Irish Constitution’s ‘women in the home’ clause, has made some potentially radical recommendations.
It voted overwhelmingly for the state ‘to take reasonable measures’ to support the provision of care ‘within the home and wider community’; it advocates a public childcare model with improved pay and conditions for staff and it has called for the rewriting of this constitutional article in non-gender specific language.
The 49 recommendations cover a wide range of issues. In the area of care, the proposals are quite specific: increasing the carers’ allowance, putting a limit on the numbers of hours in paid work outside the home, individualised pensions for carers, increasing the carers’ support grant in the next budget.
On childcare, it advocates publicly funded accessible childcare with an increase of state spending from the current paltry 0.37% of GDP, to at least 1% by 2030. Paid leave for parents should cover the first year of a child’s life. Older people and people with disabilities should have financial supports for their care needs, and a statutory right for payment of home care packages and nursing care.
The wide-ranging report has effectively put care under capitalism into the spotlight. It points to what the pandemic has already shown us: that homes and care constitute a vital place in our society, and one that is taken for granted as work that women ‘naturally’ do.
It remains to be seen whether their recommendations will be adopted by the government or whether the Irish state will implement even the small increases in public funding called for. The Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations put these core issues on the table and open up the opportunity to turn their aspirations into reality.
It is worth looking a little at the role the family has played in Irish society in the past to understand the dramatic changes it has undergone.
The Irish family, historically, has been a uniquely strong social bond, forged in reaction to the cruel depredations of colonisation, famine and emigration. It acted as an emotional and support network and transmitted traditions and solidarity. But for the state, too, the family played a pivotal role in the social structure and the religious and national ethos of Irish society, and in cementing the oppressive subordination of women.
Some have argued that the family and property were traditionally at the centre of Ireland’s welfare system. Social Policy writer Michelle Norris identifies a distinctly Irish ‘familist’ social order, in which individual interests, values and prerogatives were subordinated to those of the family. The origins of this she traces to the considerable government involvement, under British rule, in the redistribution of land ownership from landlords to tenant farmers.
Ireland’s welfare system developed differently to most other European countries. Whereas welfare states were usually the outcome of ‘a grand bargain’ between capital and urban labour movements, in Ireland a system of state-supported property ownership, first for a rural, small-holder class and later for urban housing tenants, was rolled out through government subsidisation of mortgages. Norris calls this a kind of ‘socialised system’ of ownership.
Whether it was quite as socialised as Norris claims is a matter of debate. However, what we know is that state subsidies for home purchasing from the 1980’s onwards were increasingly withdrawn. Property-welfare switched to subsidising private capital, and property developers drove housing policy.
A severe housing crisis was the result with people struggling to buy or rent a house, or even keep a roof over their heads. Corporate welfare left little welfare provision for us. No comprehensive public health service, a weak, ramshackle, sometimes voluntary system of social care and a deep social gap that mainly women have been left to fill.
A ‘familist’ ideology was ideally suited to emerging Irish capitalism. The 1937 Irish Constitution recognised the ‘family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society’.
The articles under discussion by the Citizens’ Assembly entrust the state with ‘protecting’ the family, and recognise the family as having ‘inalienable and imprescriptible’ rights, judged to be ‘antecedent and superior to all positive law’.
Article 41. 2.1 declares that ‘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.’ Article 41.2.2, declares that ‘the state shall therefore endeavour to ensure that mother shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’
It is surprising that, amid the lofty aspirations of De Valera’s constitution, such a material case for the family and women’s labouring role in it is so plainly made. It tells us how important the domestic labour dimension was for the economy of the new state. It also involved a deeply reactionary stereotyping of women, their demeaning relegation to ‘home duties’ – and this in a document claiming to cherish all its citizens equally.
In this respect, the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly are very welcome. They begin to break apart the family as a hidden, private domain in which individuals – overwhelmingly women – are forced to provide the care that society won’t. The Citizens’ Assembly recommendations also focus on a terrible dark side of the behind-closed-doors family and which has come to light during the pandemic: domestic sexual and gender- based violence.
The extent of the changes called for by the report is also indicative of the huge social changes that have occurred. Now the crudely sexist and outdated views of women seem shocking to many across society. They are also a reminder of how long Irish women have had to endure this horrific stereotypical representation of themselves.
Families and households across all western economies have radically changed over recent decades. Transformations in family composition in Ireland have happened more recently than elsewhere which makes their impact more dramatic.
Family sizes have declined significantly in a quarter century and today the average number of children per family is now down to 1.38. This has coincided with Irish women entering the workforce in large numbers. In 1990, the Irish female labour participation rate was 38%; today it is 56%, on a par with the US, where the change took place several decades ago. For women aged between 25 and 34, now 78% are in paid work.
The sharp increase in women’s employment has taken place despite the glaring lack of affordable childcare. Southern Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs, as a proportion of household income across the OECD. For low-paid workers it can represent as much as 20% of their income. A knock-on effect of this is that for women aged between 30 and 39, without college education, the workforce participation rate is lower as they are the women most affected by expensive childcare costs.
Women in paid work must either pay for childcare out of their own, often meagre, earnings or as is very common in Ireland, they must arrange childminding through family relatives. The Irish Constitution’s diktat that women should be available for their ‘duties’ in the home means today that these have become in effect a double burden for women, in addition to their paid work. This, incidentally, is the situation for women in most capitalist societies; it’s just that in Ireland it is worse.
Irish families have changed enormously. With falling birth rates and increased numbers of women in paid work the traditional nuclear family is no longer the majority type.
The 2019 Eurofound Household Composition and Well-being Survey shows that now only 36% of Irish households are traditional families (defined as parents living with children and without grandparents, other family members or non-family members), a trend that mirrors, although to a slightly less degree, the same trend across European countries.
A quarter of all Irish families with children are single-parent families – with 86.4% of these parents being female and 13.6% male. Irish households are now more likely to contain cohabiting couples than married couples.
Central Statistics Office figures show Irish households and families are made up of couples without children, couples with children, one parent families, adult children living with parents, people living on their own. One could add same-sex couples with or without children, blended (step) families, adoptive families, or extended intergenerational household with grandparents living in the home.
In 2020, half of Irish adults aged under 30 are living at home with their parents. It is indeed time to use non-gender specific designations in relation to families and care. They help undo the loaded sexist ideology of women as mothers and carers and can begin to reflect the reality of diversity of household composition in contemporary Ireland.
There are all sorts of other pressures which have altered traditional notions of families and households. Today many simply cannot afford to live independently of their parents even as adults. People aged between 25-39 have been most affected by both lower income and higher house prices, with now only 16% of this cohort able to buy somewhere to live.
In the past, home ownership for most people in even modestly paid jobs in Ireland was realisable; it solidified a particular view of the family home, linked implicitly to the ‘duties-in-the-home’ role allocated to women. This model, alongside the Catholic Church, provided for the Irish ruling class, as Fintan O’Toole noted recently, a double layer of ballast which kept conservative Ireland afloat during periods of social instability. Now both are in flux and the oppression of women was at the centre of both these social mainstays.
The changes in household composition in Ireland are part of the same trend in other countries. It is a reminder that households and families are subject to constant change and that social reproduction and economic systems are interdependent.
Household composition is related to capital’s twofold needs: a unit to look after people who will work for it and a unit to keep a labour supply going. However many conservative forces try to insist that the family is more or less unchanging, in reality, forms of social reproduction are in a constant state of transition. This, in conjunction with feminisation of the workforce, is continuously altering the social terrain and acting as a spur to political change.
The Citizens’ Assembly, while convened to discuss replacing the ‘women in the home’ clause, includes in its report a wide range of other recommendations. It proposes that gender equality, and non-discrimination should be written into the constitution. It recommends establishing gender-neutral norms in the workplace and in education and for implementing gender quotas in positions in public life.
The recommendations cover the gender pay gap with a target to reduce the current level of 14% to 4% by 2025 and to eliminating it by 2035. It calls for a fully individualised social protection system to promote an equal division of paid work and care.
There is a whole section of the report devoted to gender violence. It calls for a cabinet minister specifically in charge of the implementation of a national strategy to tackle gender violence, education campaigns to raise awareness of it, for more supports for victims, and for reforms in the way the court system treats victims of violence.
Many of the recommendations in this area refrain from making commitments to state spending for victim support services. Others remain somewhat aspirational and there needs to be further discussion as to whether the approach taken is the right one.
What the range of the Assembly’s expansive recommendations indicate is just how much the imposed care role of women in the home, as Marxists have long noted, triggers so many other gender inequalities and injustices in society.
The recommendations from the Assembly bear the radical stamp of the recent social movements across this island. They point to fundamental, structural changes that need to be made regarding the role of care and women in society. They show the need for fully comprehensive state spending for care but we know that the neoliberal priorities of those in government will rule this out.
We need to champion the socialisation of all forms of care guided by the needs of people, funded by the state, staffed on a public sector model and fully accountable to communities. These demands will come up against the profit-making, privatising motive of the capitalist system. We need to mobilise again to make them happen.