VICTORIA WHITE: The nation’s special homemakers deserve constitutional protection

A WELCOME recognition of women’s work in the home or a misogynist attempt to keep women out of the workplace?

Views differ about Article 41.2 of the Constitution which states that “by her life within the home, the woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and adds that the State will protect such women from being forced out to work by “economic necessity”.

There are half a million women working in the home in Ireland, as well as about 9,000 men. You would have thought that there would be a lot of interest in the fact that the constitutional convention convened by the Government is debating this clause this weekend. But hardly any of these women and men even know it’s going on. The convention didn’t advertise this call for submissions in the newspapers as they did that on the voting age and the presidential term because of the cost involved.

Even if they had done, it’s half-term. The kids are off school and many parents are away and not available to address the convention even if they wanted to. The main organisation representing unpaid carers in the home, Cúram, didn’t even know the clause was being discussed this weekend until tipped off last week.

Cúram’s feisty director, Áine Uí Ghiollagáin, asked why the convention had not sought a submission from her and was told that the convention wasn’t aware of her organisation. Given that Cúram submitted to the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution which considered this clause just seven years ago, that’s disappointing.

Is it surprising that the submissions on Article 41.2 on the convention’s website are few and poor? I counted about seven submissions on this clause at the time of writing, one of which contained nothing but the words: “Should be deleted from the Constitution.”

The National Women’s Council makes a submission arguing for the retention of the article, if it were made gender-neutral and referred also to care work in the community. Cúram’s submission argues for a gender-neutral version of the clause, as does the Iona Institute’s submission, rushed in yesterday morning.

What an insult is this last-minute dash by a tiny number of stakeholders to the army of carers, mostly women, stationed all over Ireland. These are special people in many ways: they have no rights or protection as workers and I almost forgot to mention, they have no pay.

Article 41.2 recognises the importance of their care work and defends it from economic attack. Quite clearly it needs to refer to men as well as women. But chucking it out would lessen the humanity of the Constitution. The clause was never meant to immure women in their homes. It was meant to protect their rights. When the clause was drafted in the early 1930s staying home was considered by most to be a great privilege.

Eamon de Valera was very influenced by a little-known feminist historian called Ivy Pinchbeck who analysed the situation of women after the Industrial Revolution and reckoned it had made their lives better because it meant that husbands could often earn enough to provide for their wives at home.

You might make the point that, since it was introduced, the clause has done absolutely nothing to protect parents from the economic necessity of going out to work. Where was it in 1999 when Charlie McCreevy brought in tax individualisation, effectively penalising families who did not send both parents into the workplace? The penalty is often more than €5,000 a year, even if you’re rearing five dyslexic children on top of a mountain.

Your rights under a constitution are only as strong as your ability to fight for them, I suppose, and that depends on your level of organisation and your finances, neither of which are strengths of parents in the home.

But just because the clause has not been used effectively doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. This may become very important if the motor of western capitalism gets moving again and Europe is suddenly looking for new workers. Instead of importing them from outside the EU, they will look to women at home with kids — what the OECD calls “a waste of human resources”.

The EU’s Lisbon Strategy (2005) committed Europeans to growing their percentage of women in the workplace from 51 percent to 60 percent by 2010. They never asked women how they felt about this because it didn’t matter. What mattered were “jobs and growth”.

The OECD’s Babies and Bosses document (2005) which is widely quoted in Irish government policy, actually suggests taking child benefit off women who don’t work outside the home. That would learn them. It has been made clear many times by this Government that parents rearing children at home need constitutional protection, from the suggestion that single parents of seven-year-olds should be made go to work, to the further indiscriminate cuts to child benefit to the sudden reduction in pension provision for retirees with a low level of PRSI credits. It was underlined most starkly when Minister Frances Fitzgerald stood up just after Christmas and suggested scrapping child benefit and replacing it with State-funded childcare.

Does she think the 75% of the under-12s cared for by a parent at home in Ireland are missing out? When the Economist called this the twelfth best country in the world in which to be born they mentioned “family and social cohesion”, not the lack of State-funded creches.

IS IT just the commitment to economic growth that’s bugging her? Economic statistics do not record the work of those who work in the home, though Ark Life Insurance reckoned that each one would cost €50,000 a year to replace.

Or is it the cultural cringe rooted in the ideological history of Fitzgerald and the wider women’s movement: the marriage bar, the campaign for contraceptives and equal pay? All of these were important but they are no reason, now, to push women into the workforce if they do not want to go. When the Second Commission on the Status of Women reported in 1993 there were 603 submissions and the item requested by the greatest number was a payment to women in the home. But the commission’s report, which Frances Fitzgerald signed, turned 42.1 on its head and ruled out a payment to parents in the home with this extraordinary assertion: “In essence, the maintenance of a full-time homemaker, although of benefit to society, is primarily a private benefit to the earning partner, and as such could hardly be deemed to warrant a state payment”.

This is the most patriarchal interpretation of the role of homemaker possible. It imagines a parent at home cleaning her husband’s golf clubs instead of raising her kids. It is a hysterical response to the imposition of the homemaking role on women who did not want it.

But many women — and some men — still do want it, at least for a time. And it would be a tragedy if a mixture of hysteria and negligence led to them being erased from the Constitution.

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