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On the gap between what was promised for women in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and what emerged then in the Constitution of Ireland. On the guardian (emphasis added).

So what happened to the promise of equality in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916 by the poet and rebel leader Patrick Pearse, and addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”? The proclamation declared an end to British rule but it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. It made a commitment to universal suffrage, extraordinary for the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote.

So how did the document’s message become stifled by a conservative culture obsessed with female chastity and purity, and so terrified of glimpsing the outlines of a woman’s body that in the 1950s we were still condemned to conceal ourselves in voluminous cardigans? How did that dream of a radical, free Ireland give way in the succeeding years to Holy Ireland, where generations of women felt they had to hide themselves away?

Historians now tell us that there was a tussle to have women included so pointedly in the proclamation. It was a struggle won by James Connolly – socialist, trade union leader and head of the Irish Citizen Army – and by Constance Markievicz, the prominent feminist and socialist. But even two years later in the general election of 1918, when Sinn Féin swept the boards, it was clear that socialists and feminists had been pushed aside. Most of the dreamers and visionaries had been shot in 1916, and a more pragmatic and conservative leadership concentrated totally on the nationalist goal of separation from the UK. The Irish Labour movement decided to stand aside in 1918 so as not to split the nationalist vote, and the only woman elected was Markievicz.

However, the real change that occurred between 1916 and 1918 was that the Roman Catholic church had finally come on board to back the rebel cause. The church didn’t like radical movements, and individual senior church men actually condemned the 1916 Easter Rising. But anger at the execution of the rising’s leaders swung public opinion firmly behind the rebels, and the Catholic church, ever pragmatic, quietly changed its stance.

The church was by far the largest and most powerful institution in the new Irish state that would emerge six years after the rebellion, and was determined to shape it. The first Free State government tried in its first constitution to reflect a pluralist state, but in Eamon de Valera’s 1937 constitution the church was given a special position, and its social teachings were enshrined. Contraception and divorce were expressly banned – and women were told to stay at home.

Article 41 of the constitution declared that the state shall “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”. This was used not to give state support to women who stayed at home, but to discriminate against women who went out to work. Women public servants – doctors, nurses, teachers, television producers – had to resign because of their positions on marriage. They might be re-employed in a temporary capacity but at a reduced salary. There were always lower rates of pay for women in the public and the private sector.

Rest: guardian.
Photo: Drawn by the ideals of 1916, many women signed up to the republican cause.Photograph: Delia McDevitt.

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