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The Irish Constitution and Its Inherent Misogyny

The Irish Constitution of 1937 attempted to ratify the exclusion of Irish women from the public sphere and civic life and confine them to the home. In 2020 we are fighting for our rights all over again but it is our recognition as a sex class that is now at stake. This article by Toiréasa O Cheallaigh looks at the influence of Catholic dogma in the drafting of the Constitution and finds that the practice of introducing legislation that negatively impacts women without consulting us continues today. 

That Eamon DeValera, one of Ireland’s leading political figures, was a misogynist is no secret.  His dislike of women is apparent as early as his attempted whitewashing of the role women played in the 1916 uprising and subsequent Irish Civil War. (1)

He refused to accept female insurgents in the outpost that he commanded during the Easter Rising. Years later, he apparently regretted this decision, and according to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, ‘Mr de Valera shows a mawish distrust of women which has always coloured his outlook; his was the only command in Easter Week where the help of women was refused. He sent the women home, some went to other areas and were welcomed, and de Valera, as I heard him say somewhat sheepishly years later, “lost some good men who had to be cooks in their (the women’s) place”’.  (1) (2)

Despite his contempt for women, De Valera was not above using them for political capital. According to Professor Sonja Tiernan, ‘de Valera included Countess Markievicz as a Fianna Fáil candidate not out of concern for gender balance or for her feminist politics but because he was dependent on public support. Markievicz, the “people’s countess” was a central element for Fianna Fáil to gain public support.’ (3)

When Markievicz died in a public ward of St Patrick Dun’s hospital in 1927, she was denied a State funeral. But her popularity was evident in the estimated 300,000 people that lined the streets to honour her funeral cortege. De Valera delivered the funeral oration, using it as a platform for his own political career.

De Valera was instrumental in the drawing up of the Irish Constitution that still impacts women today. From the formation of the Free State, De Valera’s misogyny was evident in his removal of an article from the Irish Free State constitution of 1922 that had guaranteed political right ‘without distinction of sex.’  (4)

This bias against women would continue into the process of developing the Irish Constitution of 1937 upon which all Ireland’s laws and institutions are based. It is no secret that De Valera was a staunch Catholic and he often referred to his close friends Fr John Charles McQuaid and Fr Edward Cahill while keeping the drafts of the Constitution secret from his own cabinet. De Valera received regular input from Cahill and the Jesuit Committee (5), which was set up to submit and approve articles for the Constitution. McQuaid, as a close personal friend of De Valera, had more clout and input. (6) Archives are full of material sent in from McQuaid and Cahill relating to the drafting of the Constitution with their opinions and suggestions.

The intertwining of State and Church was the aim at the outset. The Jesuit committee recommended the Constitution begin with

‘In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity and of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Universal King, we the people of Ireland so full of gratitude to God who has so mercifully preserved us from innumerable dangers in the past; hereby, as an united independent Christian Nation, establish this Sovereign Society of the Irish people . . . and so in accordance with the principles laid down we freely and deliberately to the glory of God and honour of Ireland, sanction this constitution and decree and enact as ’. (7)

On 21 October 1936, Cahill wrote to de Valera, enclosing the committee’s introduction and articles:

‘I have, in drawing up the drafts which I am sending you, availed myself of the advice and assistance of three or four others, some of whom have made a special study of these matters; others, although not specialists, are pretty well informed on them, and are men on whose judgment I have confidence.’ (8)

Influence of John Charles McQuaid

At the request of de Valera, McQuaid was involved in the actual formulation of the articles dealing with personal rights, the family, education, private property, religion and directive principles of social policy (Articles 40–45 in the final draft).

McQuaid was privy to much of what de Valera was doing, as reflected in a letter of 17 February 1937, which indicated his level of involvement, to the point of criticisms of the draft submitted by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly, registrar of University College Cork. On 8 March 1937 McQuaid sent an amendment regarding widows, orphans and the aged, emphasising the importance of the role of the family in the first instance and suggesting that a ‘mode of settlement’ for strikes would do much to neutralise ‘a great deal of the venom of communism’. The first drafts became available on 9 March 1937, de Valera personally sent a copy to McQuaid, who took particular pride in ensuring that the inverted commas were in the right places. McQuaid replied: ‘Having been through the text very carefully, I append a few points for your kind consideration’. (8)

On the day that the constitution came into force, 29 December 1937, McQuaid wrote to de Valera: ‘This morning again I said Mass for you at dawn, on the eventful day. I am reminded all day of the text in the New Testament: “Many have desired to see what we see and have not seen”’. (8)

In 1937, the Irish Women’s Citizens Association noted the position of women within the Irish State had deteriorated from the ideal of universal human rights outlined in the 1916 Proclamation. There was further resistance from feminists when the draft of the 1937 Constitution was published.

Many were furious at its articles on women, including the references to women in the home, and the proposed restrictions on women’s working rights. Some aspects of that sexist ideology still impact on women’s lives in Ireland today. For example, the gender pay gap is in large part a result of the marriage bar that prevented married women from working, while the necessity of gender quota in politics and academia is a legacy of the anti-woman worker legislation passed in the first decades of the Irish Free State. (9) A referendum on removing from the constitution Article 41.2, which references a woman’s place in the home, was postponed as recently as 2018 showing that misogyny is still alive and well in modern day Ireland.

The fact that in 2020 Article 41.2 is still present in the Constitution gives some indication that the rights of women are of little concern to the political elite.  The disregard for women’s rights is also apparent in other laws that have been passed in much the same underhand way as the Constitution Consultation in 1937.

On July 15th 2015 the Irish government passed the Gender Recognition Act in silence. No public consultation was held, and, despite the inevitable impact on the rights of women, no women’s rights groups were asked to contribute to the debate. Much like 1937 only men and misogynists were privy to the attempted exclusion of women from protection in the Constitution.  Due to the GRA 2015, Ireland is touted to be a progressive and inclusive society. But it would seem its inclusivity extends mostly to men. If you are a woman, your ‘place in the home’ is the only right you should have.