Equal Economic Rights for Women in Independent Ireland

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Equal Economic Rights for Women in Independent Ireland

Until the closing decades of the twentieth century the social model around which rights to property, employment, and social-welfare payments revolved in Ireland was the male breadwinner. The model was supported by a firm legal framework: The property of a married woman was vested in her husband; priority in employment and pay went to men; and married women were barred from work in the public service and from a range of other jobs, including teaching, nursing, and banking. In relation to certain social-welfare payments, including unemployment assistance, married women did not have an entitlement of their own; instead, their husbands were entitled to a payment for a dependent wife. Children's allowances were paid to fathers.

Until the late nineteenth century a wife did not have a legal right to hold property in her own name separately from her husband. Husband and wife were regarded as one person in law, and the husband held all the property. By an enactment in 1882, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, a wife was allowed to hold property and could enter a contract separately from her husband. The Married Women's Status Act of 1957 represented an important development regarding the property rights of married women. The act permits one spouse to sue the other in court, and a section of the act has been used to determine proprietary rights to the family home. Prior to the Succession Act of 1965 it was possible for one spouse to exclude the other from benefiting from his or her estate. As the bulk of property was held by men, this left wives in a parlous state. The Succession Act guarantees a minimum of one-third of the deceased spouse's estate to a surviving spouse. When introduced by the then minister for justice, Charles Haughey, the Succession Bill aroused terrific hostility, partly owing to the possibility of property passing out of a family of origin following a childless marriage.

In achieving equal rights for women in employment and social welfare, an important catalyst was the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women, published in 1972. In November 1969 the taoiseach announced the establishment of a Commission on the Status of Women which would operate under the minister for finance. Dr. Thekla Beere was appointed chairperson. (Beere, a legal and political science graduate of Trinity College, made history when she was appointed secretary of the Department of Transport and Power, the first woman to hold the post of secretary of a government department in Ireland.) Shortly after it was established, the commission was asked by the minister for finance to prepare an interim report on the question of equal pay with particular reference to the public sector. In the event, and reflecting the position at the time, almost the entire Final Report dealt with equal pay and other issues related to the employment of women, as well as aspects of politics and public life, taxation and social welfare.

A recommendation of the commission for a payment to women working full-time in the home as careers sprang from the concern of the commission that "the introduction of equal pay will not accentuate further the present undervaluation of the role of mother and housewife." Alone among the recommendations of the commission, this recommendation for a payment for women in the home was not implemented. However, another recommendation, that the entitlement to children's allowances should be paid to mothers was given effect in the Social Welfare Act of 1974. This proposal had been made by Deputy Liam Cosgrave, TD, thirty years earlier in 1943, when the bill to introduce children's allowances was being debated in the Dáil. An important innovation in the social-welfare code that was introduced following a recommendation by the Commission of the Status of Women was a payment for a single mother who rears her child herself. The payment was revolutionary at the time that it was introduced. Subsequently, it was extended to include fathers who rear children on their own.

Two pieces of legislation enacted in the 1970s contributed to strengthening the economic rights of women. These were the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act of 1976 and the Family Home Protection Act of 1976. The former contains a code relating to the maintenance of spouses and children and provides for enforcement of maintenance orders through attachment of earnings, while the latter prevents either spouse from disposing of the family home without the written consent of the other, although it does not give any right to ownership.

Beginning in the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression and the Economic War with Britain, restrictions were gradually introduced to limit the sphere of women's work. In 1936 the Conditions of Employment Act was passed. It provided ministerial authority to prohibit the employment of women in certain forms of industrial work, to fix the proportion of female workers who could be hired by an employer, and to outlaw the employment of women in industry between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. These restrictions applied to all women; certain further restrictions were imposed on married women. For example, a marriage bar against the employment of married women primary teachers was introduced in 1933. The growth in employment of married women has been facilitated by the removal of such discriminatory regulations against them. One of the most significant changes in the regulations governing the employment of married women was the removal in 1958 of the ban on married women primary teachers introduced twenty-five years earlier.

A series of significant changes in regulations followed Irish entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. On 31 July 1973 the marriage bar in the civil service was ended. The Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act of 1974 came into operation in December 1975, establishing the right of men and women employed at like work by the same employer to equal pay. The Employment Equality Act came into operation on 1 July 1977, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sex or marital status in recruitment, training, or provision of opportunities for promotion.

Other important laws were the Unfair Dismissals Act of 1977 and the Maternity (Protection of Employees) Act of 1981. The Unfair Dismissals Act protects employees, including pregnant employees, from unfair dismissal by laying down criteria by which dismissals are to be judged unfair and by providing an adjudication system and redress for an employee who has been dismissed unfairly. The Maternity Act of 1981 was particularly important in ensuring the right of a woman to return to work following the birth of a child. The act provides maternity protection for pregnant employees by granting an entitlement to maternity leave and the right to return to work.

The basis for equality in the social-welfare system derives from the Equality Directive of the European Community (Directive 79/7/EEC). This directive on the progressive implementation of equal treatment for men and women came into force in Ireland in 1984. At the time, a number of elements of discrimination existed in the social-welfare code. One discriminatory practice that operated against married women was the lack of direct access to unemployment assistance; instead, their husbands received an allowance for a "dependent spouse." The legislation providing for equality of treatment for men and women in the social-welfare code (Social Welfare Amendment No. 2, Act of 1985) allows either member of a married couple to claim the main payment, and a spouse can apply to obtain the dependent payment part directly. Subsequent delays in making payments led to litigation all the way to the European Court. The matter was finally resolved in 1992.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, there was general awareness of the extent to which the agenda seeking equal rights for women had been achieved, and attention refocused on possible areas of discrimination against men and on the difficulties for men and women of sharing domestic and labor-market tasks, especially in relation to the care of children and other dependents, including elderly and disabled relatives.

SEE ALSO Clarke, Kathleen; Conditions of Employment Act of 1936; Family: Fertility, Marriage, and the Family since 1950; Health and Welfare since 1950, State Provisions for; Robinson, Mary; Women and Work since the Mid-Nineteenth Century; Women in Irish Society since 1800; Primary Documents: From the Report of the Commission on the Status of Women (1972)


Commission on the Status of Women. Report to the Minister for Finance. 1972.

Kennedy, Finola. Cottage to Crèche: Family Change in Ireland. 2001. Reprint, 2002.

Second Commission on the Status of Women. Report to Government. 1993.

Shatter, Alan. Family Law in the Republic of Ireland. 1997. 4th edition, 1998, 2000.

Finola Kennedy