International Women’s day 2021: In praise of older women
Posted on 6th March 2021
Many of the women aged 70+ may celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March by reflecting on how far they have come and the pioneering women who helped take them there.
Today’s septuagenarians and octogenarians could have been reared in families where they cleaned their brother’s shoes, were educated in girl-only schools, had a job rather than a career, and were expected to have little say in Irish public life. While the educational curriculum offered more than the drawing, needlework and music in vogue a century earlier, girl schools routinely did not offer Hons Maths, Science or Chemistry. This, in turn, limited female choice for entry into third level. Not that too many females went on to university, and if there, common choices were Arts, History and Languages with few opting for Engineering or Science, seen as so-called ‘male’ degrees.
Most 1950s young women had jobs rather than careers. Jobs were a fill-in between leaving school and getting married. Jobs as nurses, typists, in retail – less as doctors, bosses or entrepreneurs – jobs where women were paid less than men as a matter of course. Added to this, women had to retire from the public service on marriage and from much private employment. Historians have described this as a cost-saving initiative. Ending working life on marriage was also founded on the patriarchal premise that married women are kept by their husbands and that a woman’s place is in the home.
Marriage was held out as the desired state for women, a happy-ever-after story offered by romantic fiction and Hollywood studios. The dream came true for many then as now. However, this was often a matter of luck rather than law, as a woman’s rights were greatly reduced on marriage. For example, a husband could sell the family home over his wife’s head, and there was nothing she could do about it. A woman needed her husband’s permission and signature to carry out the most common tasks – opening a bank account, taking out a loan, even joining the local library. Child benefit – the monthly children’s allowance – was paid directly to the husband. More seriously, there was the infamous law of criminal conversation, whereby if a married woman was unfaithful, her husband could sue the other man for financial redress. This was because a wife was regarded in custom and practice as her husband’s property, so any lessening of its value needed to be financially recompensed. Regarding reproductive health, contraception was illegal in Ireland, and regarded as sinful by the Catholic Church. The result was frequent children, contributing in some cases to family poverty and poor maternal health.
Domestic violence in marriage was never openly condoned, but church and state tacitly colluded to make it very difficult for a woman to leave. And where would she go? Without a job, an income and a place of shelter, many women had no choice but to stay.
But by the 1960s, a new generation of women were questioning the status quo. They began to make waves in the media, politics, education, law, and the world of work. Many of today’s millennials are not aware of the debt they owe to these earlier women for the gains now taken for granted, which were painfully won. Women like Nuala Fennell, Ireland’s first Minister for Women’s Affairs, Sylvia Meehan who campaigned for equality at work, Mairin de Burca who highlighted women’s eligibility and right to sit on juries. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Ireland’s first and second women Presidents were both elected after decades of service to the state. Journalists Mary Maher, Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty shone a light on various inequalities, and many more women contributed to positive change.
This momentum began, gathered pace, and in the 1970s a raft of new legislation came into being. In 1974, a law was passed allowing child benefit to be paid directly to mothers, and the first Women’s Refuge was opened. Domestic violence legislation was passed in 1976 and has since been strengthened. The marriage bar was abolished. In 1978 the Irish Family Planning Act allowed women to access a prescription for contraception from their GP. However, it was many more years before contraceptives became directly available over the counter.
The Family Home Protection Act in 1976 ensured that the family home could not be sold without the knowledge and consent of both spouses. An Equal Pay Act was passed aiming to end pay discrimination, and to ensure that wages were paid for equal work and not based on the gender of the employee. Later, the ability to divorce became law in Ireland in 1996.
So we have come a long way, but there is still work to be done. In 2019 we learnt that domestic violence does not have to be physical, and a law was passed outlaying coercive control in marriage. Sadly, an increase in calls to Women’s Aid, Safeguarding Ireland and Childline during Covid-19 indicates that violence behind closed doors is still a reality for many families in 2021. SeniorLine receives a regular number of calls from older women reporting elder abuse.
International Women's Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The theme is #choosetochallenge. The Wheel is holding an event on March 11 with a line-up of speakers who have created change. These include Holly Cairns TD, Sarah Philips, Chair of the Transgender Equality Network, Ellie Kisyombe, mother and activist, Claire Hunt, founder of Homeless Period Ireland, Barbara Scully, writer and broadcaster, and Deirdre Garvey, CEO The Wheel. Let us remember in the conversation what we owe to earlier women who did so much. Today’s younger women are standing on the shoulders of giants.