The status of women in Irish society has changed dramatically in recent decades. Modern Ireland is a different place to the one that Eamon De Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid presided over when the constitution was adopted in 1937. Marnie Holborow argues that the upcoming referendum on “women in the home” provides an opportunity to challenge misogynistic ideas but we will need to go much further.
Earlier this year the government announced that it would hold a referendum, possibly in November, to change the ‘women in the home’ article of the Irish Constitution.
Article 41.2.1 currently states that ‘by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’; and Article 41.1.2. that ‘mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.
The government was due to publish a rewording in June but nothing official was forthcoming.
Anyone with the slightest notion of gender equality will want to see the removal of these offensive, misogynistic articles. Any delay on removing them from the constitution adds to the glaring offence to women that the existing articles have represented for far too long.
In fact, it is truly mind boggling that the Constitution, whose principles are supposed to guide how a state governs, continues in 2023 to officially declare that a woman’s place is in the home, and that ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ are interchangeable. Such is the persistent deadweight of Catholic Church rule. Despite all the changes to women’s lives, record numbers of women in paid work, a sea change in traditional views of gender and sexuality, Official Ireland has resolutely refused, over decades, to challenge that power.
A Joint Oireachtas Committee in May proposed the following changes to the articles:
- That 41.1 will include care both ‘within and outside the home and family’ as contributing to the common good, and 41.2 that the state will take ‘reasonable measures’ to support both types of care.
- Article 41.3.1 will note that ‘the State pledges itself to guard with special care the family’, and the next section that this ‘includes but is not limited to the marital family’. The two other sections of the Article will recognise, under certain conditions, marriage break-up and the ‘dissolution of marriage’.
In response to the proposed rewording, Leo Varadkar agreed that there was a need to remove ‘outmoded language’. Micheal Martin kept his options open, declaring that ‘the devil is in the detail’.
The delay is not reassuring.
If and when a referendum on this is called, we can expect the Irish far right to jump on it and attempt to whip up a counter campaign. They will say that the traditional family and ‘family values’ must be defended.
For the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party, ‘family values’ mean no state intervention in family matters, seeing women as primarily bearers and carers of children and therefore also denied reproductive rights. Their love of families, of course, applies only to white, Irish, heterosexual families. And if their recent hate-filled mobilisations outside libraries are anything to go by, we can expect their counter campaign to be vilely anti-LGBTQI+ people as well.
For a clear and resounding win on removing these articles, their deep misogyny will have to be taken head on, LGBTQI+ rights, and those of migrant families, be defended loud and clear.
Family and care
However, the discussion around the amendment to these articles does not stop there. The government may have come under pressure to amend the articles, but it is taking care not to open the debate too wide. Some are of the opinion that to avoid too much controversy before the next general election, and to minimise the debate, the coalition government, may even go for the option of deletion, rather than replacement.
The Joint Oireachtas’ Committee’s proposed rewording, however, is also indicative of caution. The insertion ‘to guard with special care the family’ is a sop to conservatism and an indication that no boats – least of all those of the catholic church – will be rocked.
An immense amount of unpaid reproductive work takes place in the home. ESRI research found that in Ireland adults spend an average of 16 hours per week on caring and 14.5 hours on housework. The time spent on caring, and housework combined is the third highest in the EU. Women in Ireland spend double the time of men on caring and more than twice as much time on housework.1 All this work, the Irish state gets virtually for free.
The proposed wording hedges its bets as regards state funding for care work. Saying that the state should take ‘reasonable measures’ to support care ‘within and outside the family’ is vague enough to mean whatever the government wants it to mean. It certainly contains no commitment to improve the current paucity of state-provided services. The Irish State currently spends just 0.1% of GDP on childcare, one of the lowest in Europe. Irish childcare is overwhelmingly private and for-profit with state subsidies backing this privatised system. At an average cost of €200 per week per child, we have some of the most unaffordable childcare in the world. The proposed rewording does nothing to allow addressing this.
State and family
This raises more fundamental issues about the role of the family in capitalist societies. The southern Irish state, from its beginnings, promoted the family as a vital prop to its own rule. The 1937 Irish Constitution made clear that the Southern Irish state would be a Catholic State for a Catholic People and ‘women’s work’ in the home what was good for society. Article 41 is indicative of how the family figured large. Mention of the family as contributing ‘to the common good’ fitted in with the new state’s aim. This was to adopt a social policy which rejected a public, socially accountable welfare state in favour of vocational and unaccountable provision, mainly from religious orders and other voluntary organisations. Sociologist, Michelle Norris, has shown how Irish welfarism depended on a familism as a social order, which meant that it was also strongly patriarchal and authoritarian.2
While Ireland may have been something of an outlier in its overt Catholic leanings, reliance on the private family is common to all capitalist states. Family law constitutes a large part of legal systems. Most nation states, whether openly favoring one religion or secular, filter taxation, property and inheritance, and welfare payments, through the family. Marriage and family are core concepts for societies in which private property reigns supreme.
For example, the US Constitution may have no mention of the family, but as we have recently seen, the US Supreme court, rules on abortion, marriage, contraception, but also mental illness of family members, rights of the police to search a home, and many other things. US welfare policies, family historian Stephanie Coontz demonstrates, showed a strong commitment to the nuclear family and female domesticity. State intervention revolves around creating a picture of the ‘normal’ family as private, autonomous and self-supporting. Coontz argues that the capitalist state is committed to creating individualistic definitions of responsibility in a competitive and class-divided social order.3 A highly individualistic construction of the family fits that purpose well.
Beyond ideology, states have come to rely much more economically and materially on individual families, mainly to fill the gap of public service provision. The Covid pandemic was a dramatic example of how care in the home expanded and society increased its reliance on individual households. The International Labour organisation estimates that for the sixty-four countries for which it has data, 16.4 billion hours are now given over to unpaid care work in the home every day. Recent research has shown that most countries spend 45-55 percent on their total labour time on unwaged reproductive work.4 Dependence on individual households has increased, despite numbers of women in the paid workforce having risen. Even as wage earners, women are still the main carers in the home because fully comprehensive state child- and elder care, in most countries, remain stubbornly out of reach.
It is also the case that reliance on the individualisation of care via the family provides the condition for the expansion of the marketisation of services. Care provided on an individual basis is a ready target for the market. Often, as in Ireland, states provide subsidies to both care providers and care consumers, thereby extending market dependency.
Obviously, wider social inequalities result from a reliance on privatised care. Market-provided services are often too expensive for many, and families and friends are again called upon to step in to fill the gap. Add to this chronic under-investment and mismanagement in public health systems and greater reliance on private ones, ever longer healthcare waiting times, and more people are forced to care for sick relatives longer at home. Mainstream politicians may talk long and hard about gender equality and the work- life balance, but they are speaking to higher salary earners who have the means to avail of a market-based care system and to come out on top. Not so the vast majority who are left to deal with the care shortfall themselves.
Stereotypes and reality
The family, in public discourse, is often assumed to be universal and unchanging. The models are too often still nuclear, heterosexual, and white. A recent overview of ‘family-friendly’ policies produced by the European Commission displayed on its cover a photo two pairs of white hands encircling a cut-out of a woman and man holding hands with two children.5
Member state policies still favour ‘traditional families’ for house purchase options, leaving single people, one parent families, couples who don’t marry or who don’t have children stuck with few options but to rent at exorbitant expense. Rory Hearne has pointed out that Irish housing policy assumes that first time buyers are ‘traditional’ families and the government backs funding for them over individuals’.6 Even same sex marriages are often couched in the same individualist, conventional ideology with pressures on LGBTQI+ families to conform to heteronormative models. Also, one parent households are still too often perceived as ‘problematic’ ‘fragile’, even ‘dysfunctional’, even, as one Irish sociologist has put it, ‘deriving from social disadvantage’.7
In this context, to commit our society to ‘guard with special care the family’, as if there is one type, is wilfully ignoring social realities. CSO figures show that the Irish households today are more diverse than ever before. There are rising numbers of co-habiting couples, of ‘living-apart-together’ couples who are separated for parts of the week, of migrant workers living alone, miles apart from their families. Ireland is following patterns in the EU where in recent years the proportion of single adult households increased faster than those of adults living in a couple.8 Most obviously, support for the family in blanket terms conveniently passes over the fact that families are also places of violence and abuse.
The misogynistic and gender-conforming strictures attached to the family have led some feminists, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, to call for the abolition of the family.9 But this is to miss the point. The family is not just a set of oppressive ideologies but a real living social unit upon which, for all its mental and physical tensions, people depend for their everyday sustenance and protection. Many migrant workers and refugees are denied the right to be with family members and their right to family reunification cannot be ignored. Also people have very ambivalent feelings towards families – they can be everything that is good and everything that is bad. In other words, before the oppressive aspects of the family can be removed, and for people to become truly free to choose how they live their personal lives, alternative material arrangements need to be fought for and won.
The ‘women in the home’ referendum, when it happens, will be an opportunity to shine a light on the hidden world of unpaid reproductive work in individual homes and how things could be different. We need to expose ‘guarding with special care the family’ for the empty platitude that it is. We need to show how the enforced concentration of care provision within the family makes it a source of many of the problems in our society.
In this respect, support for existing campaigns – for free access to creches and nurseries for babies and children, and for free Early Childcare and Education Services – is vital. Private creches and nurseries must move to a fully publicly funded model with the recruitment of public sector childcare professionals on graded pay scales. Besides a comprehensive state-run building programme to house homeless families, and those who cannot afford a home, we need the building and acquisition of publicly funded childcare facilities in communities, and with communities themselves having a say in what type of service is needed. An adequate supply of housing for those escaping domestic violence urgently needs to be built.
Removing reactionary views of gender in the constitution is a small step towards undoing oppressive and gender essentialist-imposed norms and pushing back the far right misogynistic backlash.
But taking on misogyny also requires supporting the fight for radical change that will win the comprehensive socialisation of care. We should be under no illusion that those struggles will come up against the capitalist order, which has profited so long from getting care on the cheap from families, and that a social revolution is required to fix it.
- ERSI, Caring and Unpaid Work in Ireland, 2019, https://www.esri.ie/publications/caring-and-unpaid-work-in-ireland
- Michelle Norris, Property, Family and the Irish Welfare State, London, Palgrave McMillan, 2016.
- Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American families and the nostalgia trap, New York, Basic Books, 1992, 189
- Both findings are quoted in Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek, After Work: A history of the home and the fight for free time, London Verso, 2023, pp 15-16.
- European Commission:’ Family Friendly Workplaces: Overview of Policies and Initiatives in Europe’ (2016) op.europa.eu
- See for example Irish housing policy which assumes that first time buyers will be ‘traditional’ families as documented in Rory Hearne, 2022, ‘One year on from Maynooth controversy, the government still backs funds over individuals’. https://www.thejournal.ie/readme/rory-hearne-one-year-from-maynooth-government-policy-housing-ireland-5789619-Jun2022/?fbclid=IwAR2Lgw00Qiil8FF97bNRQSs59vnRFSJvcBlYYZVt4vopdlUT8FkQKF8C-_U
- Tony Fahey,’ The family in Ireland in the new Millennium’ in Linda Connolly (ed) The Irish Family (London: Routledge 2015), 68.
- Eurostat, Household Composition Statistics, 2021, Household composition statistics – Statistics Explained (europa.eu)
- Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against the family, London Verso, 2019; Kathi Weeks, ‘Abolition of the family: The most infamous feminist proposal’, Feminist Theory 24(3)