In this powerfully argued piece, law student Roisin Dunlea explores the ‘woman’s place’ in the Irish Constitution and the action that’s being taken to change it.
Deep in the heart of the document that serves as the foundation of our country’s governance, a dusty and dated reminder of ‘Old Ireland’ remains; Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution is commonly known as the “woman’s place” clause. It insists that a woman’s presence and duties in the home are necessary to maintain the common good, and that the State shoulders the responsibility to ensure that she is not required to neglect this life for reasons of economic necessity (i.e. to abandon her wifely and/or motherly “duties” in favour of the workplace). As the more conservative divisions of the Irish population continue to lick their wounds following the repeal of the 8th Amendment, a new quest for constitutional rejuvenation has appeared on the horizon since the Citizens’ Assembly voted this year in favour of holding a referendum proposing changes to Article 41.2.
However, the article at play here is by no means as controversial as the 8th Amendment, and so it doesn’t seem to receive as much publicity. In the present day, the clause can actually come across as insignificant and practically dormant, albeit sexist and outdated. By all accounts it has never been referenced by the government or the courts and it could even have been considered a somewhat progressive aspect of the Constitution at the time of its ratification in 1937, when women in general weren’t acknowledged much at all in such instruments. That being said, it is widely acknowledged that the status of women within our society is evolving at a rapid pace and that the law governing said society must evolve with it. For this reason, among others, the Citizens’ Assembly proposed that the article be amended and put to better use.
The Assembly suggested adjusting the wording of the article to abandon any reference to gender or parental roles, thereby constitutionalising the importance of caregivers of all descriptions. This would be an incredibly valuable change for family carers, whose job can be lonely and thankless; family members sacrifice hours of their time — or even their entire personal lives — to provide constant support for loved ones who may have disabilities or long-term illnesses. They simultaneously fill the roles of chef, cleaner, accountant, counsellor, teacher, trainer, nurse, and more, all within a domestic setting and often with limited resources. They work long hours with little reward of any kind, and they usually do it out of love and an eagerness to help. They are the unsung heroes of every community and almost every family in the country, and they deserve recognition and a constitutional article that will place an obligation on the government to simply do more to allow them to avail of adequate support and rest.
If the Assembly’s proposals are followed, we could soon be voting for higher allowances, increased respite hours, and even State pensions for full-time family carers. This translates to improved assistance for elderly people who care for ill spouses, parents who care for disabled children, and countless other categories of caregiver in Ireland. It may not appear to be as widely influential or as generally applicable as previous constitutional changes; but if this particular amendment goes to referendum and is passed, it would have profoundly positive effects for women and families across the country. A constitutional obligation which binds the government is a big deal, to put it lightly.
CSO estimates show that there are over half a million full-time, unpaid family carers in Ireland today. Although the proposed amendment would apply to carers of all genders, statistics in the Assembly report tell us that 98% of full-time carers are female, and twice as many unpaid female carers provide over 43 hours care per week in comparison to their male counterparts. An opportunity has arisen here for an archaic and sexist provision to be recycled in order to bring about ground-breaking improvements for a female-dominated sector, while removing traces of outdated generalist attitudes towards women. It’s difficult to imagine a better way to convert the “woman’s place” article into something helpful and meaningful for a subsection of the female population that is so often forgotten and underappreciated.