I stayed at home, Dev, so where's my State support?


The Constitution’s article 41.2 on women in the home is archaic and we must seize the chance to change it, writes Fiona Sherlock

Last week, the National Women’s Council of Ireland called for the reopening of schools, as women are disproportionately affected by increased childcare responsibilities. Just days before, the Citizens’ Assembly proposed amending the Constitution – which discusses the place of women in the home – to a gender-neutral alternative. Could it be the case that, despite the advances of the past eight decades, we are not as far away from the 1930s as we might like to be?

n one hand, women are at breaking point, caring for their children and balancing paid employment. On the other hand, we have a specific acknowledgement of their contribution in our fundamental legal document. But Article 41.2 is of no use to the women stretched between managing homeschooling, an autistic child and managing a team of accountants, for example. Nor is it of any benefit to a self-employed single mother, struggling to pay her mortgage while teaching her kids quadratic equations.

The language is anachronistic and paternalistic. This gender stereotyping needs to be changed, for it does not reflect the modern Irish family.

Outdated and derogatory language aside, this collection of words is pretty useless to our aforementioned mammies. No legislation was drafted to enforce it. No one has ever taken a case to argue that the State should provide for women in the home. But should it? If we are voting to change the wording, shouldn’t we also seek the opportunity to define how we view caregivers?

The article reads: “The State recognises that by her life within the home, [a]woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

There are legal considerations to this amendment and the Citizens’ Assembly is intended to represent the electorate. However, that should not preclude us mammies, daddies and caregivers from contributing to the discussion. Within the past six years, the Irish people voted in referenda on same-sex marriage and voted for an end to the ban on abortion. We are dab hands at engaging in the process.

I dusted off my copy of the Constitution when I decided to stay at home with my daughter. I felt the wording was directly relevant to me, but completely irrelevant at the same time. In the end, I used my copy of the Constitution as a prop to accompany a Mary Robinson costume, for my little girl. There I was, acknowledging our first female president’s inspirational role and the importance of the Constitution in a cute pic for Instagram. But really, I felt it had nothing to do with me.

In the movie Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon plays lawyer Elle Woods. Written off as a bimbo, she proves effective and influential without giving up her fuchsia pillbox. When it comes to the process of law making, many women of my age might picture this fictional powerhouse more clearly than the grave and stately spectre of Éamon de Valera. If we choose to view the inclusion of this clause as a sign of appreciation by the State legislators – was it Dev’s version of snaps for the girls?

Constitution Law isn’t often discussed in online parenting groups. Useless partners are though. Even pre-pandemic, household duties are not equally shared. That is partially due to physiology. I nurse my eight-month-old to sleep rather than enforce some entirely equitable bedtime routine with my husband. (He does other things.) Each family is configured differently, with varying roles and responsibilities. And as much as it is a duty, I cherish each time I settle my baby into my arms or draw him close for milk.

But time spent rearing children and dependants, rewarding as it may be, is expected, but not rewarded or acknowledged by this country. A 2019 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission report found that Ireland has the third-highest rate of unpaid work for both women and men and that the gap between men and women is 15 hours per week. That’s 2.5 days. And CSO data from 2019 indicated that women accounted for 94pc of those looking after home or family.

It is time for us to decide on our future, to blaze a trail like pioneers such as former president Mary Robinson, late journalist Veronica Guerin, politician Mairead McGuinness, Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu and equality rights campaigner Sinéad Burke. For as society changes, laws must keep up.

The Citizens’ Assembly will vote on the matter in April. This could lead to a referendum on changing Article 42.1 of the Constitution. Let’s take this opportunity for reform head-on. We may still have to rock the cradle, but we have another hand to rock the system.

Source: Irish News