It is often said now, that Ireland is a “modern European state”. Men and women are legally equal; through European equality legislation this must be the case. However, Ireland’s history has had quite a bleak story to tell about women. In this essay, that history will be traced. The struggle women undertook in order to be allowed to vote, the female war for independence alongside the more publicised male effort and the constitutional frailties that still exist will all be described in the essay.
The contemporary women’s movement will also be discussed, taking in issues such as contraception, divorce, abortion and working rights, which preoccupied women in post-revolutionary Ireland. These problems, although prominent in all Western countries at the time, had particular relevance for Irish women and in many cases were far harder to overcome. Although the “modern state” Ireland is now has equality on the face, women still struggle in daily life with issues such as the male domination of many industries, the persistence of sexual stereotyping and the lack of progress on matters such as abortion and child care.
This essay attempts to describe the development of the feminist movement in Ireland and discuss the peculiarities of the movement as opposed to those in other states, taking into account the Church, the nationalist movement and the male-dominated governments. Women in early Irish society had many of the rights that feminists have fought for in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The original patriarchal law evolved and changed, so that women held an equal role to men in many ways.
(MacCurtain and i? Corri?
in 1978; 1) The adoption of Christianity in Ireland had little impact on this Brehon Law, and the two existed side by side. However, on the Norman invasion, the Irish customs became diluted with those of the English, and the subsequent “imposition of English law on Ireland in the seventeenth century” (ibid; 11), Irish women lost their equal status. As the Church in Rome gained power and became less liberal, Christianity, combined with English law, became the dominant force in Ireland. As a result, according to Donnacha i?
Corri? in in his essay “Women in Early Irish Society” (ibid), “in its attitude to women and their place in society – as in its attitude to many other matters – modern Ireland enjoys no continuity with its Gaelic past. ” In the 1800s, the women’s movement began in Ireland, as it did all over Western Europe. Irish feminism was naturally associated with British feminism, as both groups were looking for reforms from the same centre – Westminster.
Before 1900, the feminists focused on issues such as:attaining equal educational rights for girls, legal protection for married women regarding property and children, and a broadening of employment opportunities for single women. Political equality and more particularly, the parliamentary vote for women remained an ideal for most activists. (Cullen Owens 2001; 9) Successes in these areas were brought about in the 1870s and 1880s in acts such as the Intermediate Act, opening higher education to girls (MacCurtain and i? Corri? in 1978; 47), and a series of Acts between 1970 and 1882 which gave property ownership rights to married women.
The middle- and upper-class women who supported the movement at the time seemed to win both educational and legal equality; it was political equality that was yet to be won. (Cullen Owens 2001; 9) In the 1900s, this issue came to the forefront and the women’s suffrage movement reached prominence. When it came to this political equality, Irish suffragettes faced some extra problems the British ones did not have to deal with. Only one issue mattered to Irish politicians in the first two decades of the new century: “Ireland’s domination by Britain and whether or not to fight for independence.
” (Smyth 1993; 20) Women had difficulty in deciding whether they should fight within their party (home rule or unionist) so that votes for women would be included in a subsequent constitution or fight for their party so that they would be repaid with the vote. Women tried both these approaches. More again tried another, refusing to support any particular side, fighting solely for suffrage. (ibid; 22) These women, with the first group, were soundly criticised by nationalists for “seeking the vote from an alien government” while some Home Rule Supporters were afraid of “jeopardising the passage of such a bill. ” (Cullen Owens 2001; 13)