If you want to understand the past, one thing you must do is look to the economic conditions of the time, writes David Quinn
Why were attitudes often harsh in the past? Is it because the people then were more horrible than now, and we are far more enlightened, or could it be that social attitudes were shaped by poverty and sometimes the fear of actual hunger? Anything seen as a threat to a family’s economic survival was sometimes dealt with extremely ruthlessly, not least unmarried mothers and their children.
At the weekend, the Citizens’ Assembly met again – online of course – in order to discuss Article 41.2, the provision in the Constitution which says that mothers “shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.
This provision is now seen as the product of a deeply sexist, even misogynistic time, and nothing more.
But note first of all what it does not say. It doesn’t state that a woman’s place is in the home, contrary to popular belief. It simply says that a mother should not be forced out of the home and away from her children in order to make ends meet. It is actually an attempt to give mothers a bit of economic freedom.
The background is that at the time, many people were so poor it was difficult to keep the wolf from the door unless every member of the family who could work outside the home, did so.
It was somewhat different if you were on a farm. In that case you worked very close to your home and to your children and you could keep an eye on them while you worked, or else you might have had an older family member who could do so. Sometimes children didn’t even live with their parents because there was no room. One of my grandmothers when she was growing up spent time living with an aunt.
But if you had come to work in the city, in a factory say, you might well have moved away from your family. If both the mother and the father had to work, who would mind the children during the day in that case?
In fact, for a large part of the 19th Century, the children themselves often ended up working in the factories, or sometimes overburdened parents even delivered them to industrial schools.
In this kind of economic context, trying to create the conditions whereby a mother did not have to go out to work, was a massive step forward.
We often imagine today that women back then were being held back from fulfilling jobs, such as often exist today, but typically they were backbreaking jobs involving extremely long hours and terrible working conditions.
The men also worked in similar circumstances.
If you could transport the people of today back to 1920 or 1930 and confront them with the very real prospect of having to work very long hours in terrible jobs away from their homes and children in order to make ends meet, and you then held out the prospect that mothers would no longer be forced out of the home, into the workplace, what do you imagine they would think? They would obviously leap at the freedom granted.
This was the background to Article 41.2.
In fact, while Ireland was unusual in inserting this kind of provision into our Constitution, the thinking behind it was not at all unusual. On the contrary, it led to widespread support for something called ‘the family wage’.
This was a wage big enough to look after a family without both parents, or the children for that matter, having to work. The mother would be freed from a probably unrewarding job and the children could stay in school, rather than having to quit aged 12, if not before, which was commonplace until relatively recently.
‘The family wage’ was very strongly supported by trades unions in various countries, not least Ireland, Britain, France, the US and Sweden. While it was certainly supported by the Catholic Church, it was not a Catholic invention.
It is, by the way, why men were often paid more than women for the same job. If it took two people to earn a family wage, then it defeated the purpose of it, which was to allow one parent to stay at home.
It would have been fairer if either the mother or the father could ask for the family wage, but paying men more had very widespread support.
Indeed, even in social democratic Sweden, the family wage was supported by the unions right up until the 1960s, when equal pay replaced it, as in other countries.
Today, of course, we are back to a situation whereby both parents are often forced into the workplace and the demands of the economy have overwhelmed the domestic sphere. For the most part, what the State now offers is day-care centres for children so we can all spend long hours at work and commuting back and forth, although it remains to be seen what will happen post-pandemic.
Is this liberation? Is it progress? Opinion polls in Ireland and elsewhere consistently show that once women become mothers, many would rather spend more time at home and then take-up part-time, rather than full-time work.
But these mothers are mainly ignored by a State that wants as many of us as possible to become taxpayers. Is this really progress? It’s highly debateable.