Because one referendum this year just wasn’t draining enough, the slow, painstaking journey to make our Constitution fit for purpose in the modern era presents us with a new conundrum – whether a woman’s place really is in the home, and a vote on Article 41.2 is imminent in the next few months.
For those not aware, Article 41.2 states: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, 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.” The wording of the amendment has been described by its various critics as “sexist”, “offensive”, “patriarchal”, even “misogynistic”.
Now, I’m a proud feminist myself (reminder: feminists dislike inequality, not men), and I wouldn’t particularly like to be condemned to a life in the kitchen (an existence that would not produce good outcomes for anyone, nutritional or otherwise) but despite the obvious intrinsic sexism, these couple of lines are probably not things I would be getting too upset about in the grand scheme of things. Replace the “mothers” with “parents/guardians”, and replace “duties” with something else I haven’t yet figured out, and in my view, that article should stay right where it is.
But in typical Irish style, nothing is that simple. Rather than amending the wording, the Government has decided that straightforward deletion of the article is the way to go. Why? Well, because the rather uncomfortable truth of the matter is that many – probably most – parents in Ireland are certainly obliged to engage in labour outside the home, in many cases, to the detriment of their home and family life. And the Government absolutely does not want you or I to start thinking too hard about this, because then, people might suggest that they need to do something about it.
I’m not a parent. Becoming a parent is not on my to-do list. (That’s for another column.) But if it were, I have a strong feeling that I might prefer not be economically obliged to leave my child to go out to work so that I could pay the bills. I feel that I might just want to spend that time with them while they are small. Of course, this is purely hypothetical, and in reality I’d probably find myself running screaming for the office desk within a month, but I know that in an ideal world, I would like to have that choice. I know that plenty of my peers who already have children would prefer that choice too. And it’s remarkable that in the space of one generation, that stay-at-home parenthood has gone from being an enforced norm for many to a restricted privilege for the few. Whether you identify as a woman or not, why should any parent or guardian not be able to take the time to raise their child at home, if that is what they feel is best?
Unfortunately, successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil governments over the past number of decades have created a society where parents absolutely do not have the freedom to decide whether to work or whether to parent their children full-time. And they are rightly embarrassed by this. They are also terrified that acknowledging the contribution to the Irish economy of those who work within the home would lead to us having to acknowledge the work that full-time carers do, often unsupported, under immense financial and personal pressure. Leo Varadkar has, suggested that amending Article 41.2 would be too complicated; instead preferring to focus on deleting its “sexist and anachronistic” language from the Constitution, thus throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He feels that we should have “debate on caring and families”. How generous. How meaningful. What a cop-out. But then, Leo has never had much consideration for the pressures faced by our vulnerable members of society.
Of course, because the article is, sadly, utterly aspirational and essentially meaningless as a result, you might rightly question the rationale for retaining it all, and that would be a legitimate argument. However, if we do not set ourselves aspirations as a society, surely our motivation to progress is diminished?
Those protesting about the sexist nature of the wording of Article 41.2 have a point; but in the greater scheme of things, they are fighting the wrong battle. Fighting for true equality in this instance would not be removing the reference to women’s place in the home, but forcing the government to work in a meaningful way towards delivering a society where many parents do not have to be forced away from their children against their wishes, in order to keep a roof over their heads.
This article first appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, July 31, 2018