Saturday, March 10, 2012

Changing Women's lives in Ireland part 2

This is the second part of Goretti Horgan's article part 1 is here

The weakness of the Irish left

Other Catholic church dominated countries have had a healthy anti-clerical tradition on the left, so the capitulation of the Irish left has to be explained. At the start of the 20th century, with the church growing ever more militant, Ireland needed a left which would take the church on and defend the rights of women, and men, to sexual freedom. If the working class was to stand together, it needed an alternative view of women’s role and position in society. James Connolly, the giant of Irish socialism, might have been expected to provide such an alternative. Unfortunately, Connolly’s syndicalism led him to see the women’s question only in relation to economic issues. Unlike Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Connolly did not regard the family and sexual freedom as areas of socialist concern.

Although he argued frequently against individual bishops and priests, Connolly did not see the Catholic church for what it had become: a defender of capitalism. Although a materialist, he believed religion belonged to the realm of the unknowable or was a product of our ignorance of nature. This, together with his belief that the Catholic church would not oppose a socialist movement that looked like winning, led him to argue that socialists should ignore the question of religion altogether. His Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) “prohibits the discussion of theological or anti-theological questions at meetings, public or private”. [41] He forbade discussion within the party of all questions relating not only to religion, but also to sexual relationships. Connolly’s total exclusion of these questions “sprang from the same theoretical source: namely that working class consciousness would passively reflect economic conditions and move spontaneously to socialism”. [42] The limitations of Connolly’s Marxism – his syndicalism – influenced the Irish left generally, severely undermining the ability of Irish workers to defend their own interests. The result was that socialists made more and more concessions to Catholicism. During the election of 1900 Connolly proposed that all ISRP members should attend mass!

This failure to challenge the church’s view of women and sexuality weakened the ability of workers to defend their economic position. A case in point is the Magdalen Laundries. They were, in essence, sweatshops served by the slave labour of the women imprisoned there without trial or release date. During the 1913 Dublin Lockout one of the strikers, Mary Ellen Murphy, was sentenced to one month in custody for “assaulting one of the girls employed by Messrs Jacobs by giving her a box on the face and calling her a ‘scab’.” [43] Because she was only 15 she could not be put in Mountjoy jail with the other strikers. Instead she was committed to High Park Convent in Drumcondra, where the nuns ran an Industrial School and Magdalen institution on the same site.

In demanding Mary Ellen Murphy’s release, both Connolly and Larkin used the language of priests and bishops against the women of the Magdalen institution. Instead of railing against the use of slave labour, with its inevitable undercutting of wage rates for workers in commercial laundries, they complained that Mary Ellen would be forced to mix there with “fallen women”. Connolly said that “when that girl was sent into that institution her character was foully besmirched and a damnable outrage committed”. He answered criticisms from the employers that he was exaggerating when he said the girl was in a “home for fallen women”:
... the girls of the reformatory were in the same chapel with the fallen women and in view of them, a partition only dividing them ... she was not forgotten by her friends, though the hell hounds of the capitalist system were trying to blacken her character. [44]
In portraying the women of the Magdalen Laundries as outcasts from the working class, instead of as the most oppressed of that class, Connolly failed to oppose the church in its mission to support capitalism in its exploitation of workers. This became clearer after Connolly’s death when the Magdalen institutions started to bid for work traditionally done by commercial laundries. Time and again the leadership of the Irish Women Workers’ Union complained that employers looked for cuts in wages and for longer hours without compensation. The employers argued that they could not pay their workers a living wage and compete with the institutional laundries. In the middle of the Second World War, when there should have been plenty of work, the IWWU had to write to the heads of the Magdalen Laundries urging them not to take work away from the commercial operations. While two Reverend Mothers had “friendly but inconclusive” talks with the IWWU, others did not even reply to the union’s letters. In April 1941 Bloomfield Laundry lost a military contract to the Donnybrook Magdalen Laundry and 25 women at Bloomfield were laid off. [45]

Connolly’s approach to the Magdalen women contrasted with the approach taken by Lenin and Trotsky to the prostitutes who organised themselves in the course of the Russian Revolution. To anyone who questioned the right of these women to be part of the workers’ councils, they pointed out that as the worst victims of class society, they had more right than most to help build an alternative. Lenin’s maxim that the revolutionary has to be “the tribune of the oppressed” was explained by Tony Cliff:
A revolutionary has to be extreme in opposition to all forms of oppression. A white revolutionary must be more extreme in opposing racism than a black revolutionary. A gentile revolutionary must oppose anti-Semitism more strongly than any Jew. A male revolutionary must be completely intolerant of any harassment or belittling of women. [46]
None of this takes away from the fact that, generally speaking, Connolly was a champion of women’s rights at a time when it was “neither popular nor profitable”. His essay – Woman, published in 1914 in The Reconquest of Ireland – echoed Marx and Trotsky with its assertion that “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”. And the women who worked closely with him in the ISRP, the trade union movement or the Irish Citizen Army were all unequivocal about his support for women’s liberation. His daughter Nora said he regarded women as complete equals and “saw nothing incongruous in a woman having a seat on an army council, or preferring to bear arms to winding bandages”. [47] The feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington said that when it came to the fight for women’s rights Connolly never failed to respond to a call for a meeting or a protest demonstration. She credited Connolly with ensuring that the 1916 Proclamation of Independence was addressed to both Irish men and Irish women and guaranteed equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens.
Connolly was always clearly on the side of women fighting to improve their rights as workers. But his insistence that socialists should not agitate on matters of religion or sex was to leave the Irish left with a legacy of weakness which was only overcome in the 1970s with the re-emergence of the non-Stalinist revolutionary left.

It would be wrong to give the impression that there was no resistance to the fierce repression that gripped Ireland for over a century. But resistance was difficult in a country which was underdeveloped, where church and state were so closely connected, and the left was weak. Many young people, especially young women, were glad to emigrate as a way to escape the unemployment and repression.

Maintaining their hold on the land might go a long way towards explaining continuing high rates of late marriage and permanent celibacy through the 1920s, 1930s and even up to the 1960s. But the inordinately high rates can only be fully explained in the context of women resisting their exclusion from the workforce. While married women were not allowed to work, over two thirds of younger women and more than half of older single women worked outside the family home. It is difficult not to conclude that many women, faced with the choice between a life of poverty and dependence in marriage or a relatively decent single life, decided to remain single. For anyone, man or woman, to marry meant two adults living on one wage: an immediate reduction in their standard of living. By the mid-20th century, when urban employment was, if not plentiful, at least common, the population was still declining. [48]

The church, which had so firmly endorsed postponement of marriage, was now concerned at the extent of late marriage. The modernisers around Sean Lemass, then Fianna Fail taoiseach, were clear that for Ireland’s economy to develop the population trends of the previous century would have to be reversed. Bishop Lucey of Cork made the church’s new view clear:
those who remain single through selfishness, or through over-anxiety about the future, or for any other such reason – for instance, the woman who does not want to give up her independence or her job, or the man who does not want the burden of supporting a home – are failing in their duty to god, themselves, and the race. [49]
We have seen above the resistance the IWWU mounted to the 1935 Conditions of Employment Act. They and other women’s groups also fought to remove the worst discrimination against women from de Valera’s 1937 constitution. [50] And, like working women and men throughout the world, Irish women rose up from time to time to fight against the poverty which blighted their lives and the lives of their families.

Apart from domestic servants and nuns, laundry workers made up one of the largest groups of women workers. From the IWWU’s earliest days laundresses were the most militant section of the union. In 1918 women in laundries worked over 50 hours a week, were paid between seven and ten shillings and had no paid holidays. In 1936 the 45-hour week had been won, a minimum wage of 32s 6d secured, and laundry workers had been the first to win a week’s paid holiday. The success of the laundresses inspired other groups of workers. In 1936 alone, at Ever Ready hours were reduced from 48 to 44; at the Post Office a 44-hour week was conceded and nurses won a reduction from 56 to 48 hours – but only in unionised hospitals. [51]

In 1945 the laundry workers went on strike for two weeks paid holidays a year – a demand not yet made by the best organised male workers. They had put in six claims for the fortnight between 1934 and 1945, stressing the dangers to women’s health in the hot, damp working conditions. Now, “worn out by prolonged overtime during the war emergency”, they voted overwhelmingly (94 percent) for strike action and instituted an overtime ban. The Federated Union of Employers (FUE) recognised that, if the women won, the rest of the workforce would demand parity. It asserted there would be no negotiations until the government declared a fortnight’s holiday as a national right. The entire union, from the shop floor to the paid officials, set out to win the strike.

Although the trade union movement was riven by internal dissent – in 1945 the ITUC had split – support for the women workers was immediate. The ITUC requested all affiliated unions to offer financial support to ensure that lack of resources would not force the IWWU to give in. Defeat, it argued, would “be little short of a tragedy and would constitute a standing disgrace to the Irish trade union movement.”
Picket lines were livened by the laundry workers’ song, to the tune of Lili Marlene:
Outside the laundry we put up a fight
For a fortnight’s holiday
They said we’d have to strike,
So we keep marching up and down,
As we nearly did for half a crown
We are a fighting people
Who cannot be kept down
After three months on strike the women rejected compromise proposals outright. In an open letter to members of the Oireachtas (parliament), strike committee chair Margaret McGrath reiterated the right of the women to “adequate leisure, a just wage and respect for personal dignity”. They would not be returning to work until “our just claims are justly met”.
Two weeks later the employers indicated that they were willing to reconsider. On 30 October the IWWU and the FUE agreed that “all women workers employed in laundries operated by members of the federation shall receive a fortnight’s holiday, with pay, in the year 1946.” The laundry women had opened the door. The rest of the working class poured through.

Economic development
The late 1940s and early 1950s in Ireland were years of stagnation and malaise economically and politically. The South was in a state of near economic collapse. Employment in agriculture continued to decline, while stagnant industry provided no alternative jobs. Protectionism had had been shown not to work but that fact had yet to be faced by the politicians. As a result, emigration had reached unconscionable levels, even by Irish standards. Of every 100 girls in Connaught aged 15 to 19 in 1946, 42 had left by 1951. Four out of every five children born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 emigrated in the 1950s. [52]

It was clear that a new economic orientation was needed. The alternative strategy chosen to replace protectionism was to use inward investment to inject a new dynamism into the Irish economy. The ground had already been prepared to welcome the multinationals. In 1949 the Industrial Development Authority was set up and Export Profits Tax Relief introduced in 1956. In 1955 the Irish government signed an agreement with the United States giving guarantees against the expropriation of the investments of US citizens or any ban on the reconversion of their earnings into dollars. The 1958 report of civil servant T.K. Whitaker, Economic Development, which in popular history is seen as marking the beginning of the new turn, was drawn up after unofficial discussions with the World Bank. The bank sanctioned the report prior to its publication. [53]

The new turn transformed the economy, and eventually the lives of women, in Ireland. The economy grew at a rate of 4 to 6 percent throughout the 1960s and jobs began to open up for women. The growth in the economy was accompanied by a big expansion in social spending. Access to healthcare was greatly improved with a choice of doctor scheme, and children’s allowance was paid for all children. Statutory redundancy payments and pay-related unemployment benefit greatly improved the lives of workers in insecure jobs. [54] As in Britain in the years after the Second World War, the economy demanded a more educated and secure workforce. As well as the rudimentary welfare state, in 1967 free secondary education was introduced. A basic grant system for third level education was introduced in 1972. Combined with other developments, particularly the arrival of the pill – which was available as a cycle regulator, even though banned as a contraceptive – these changes were to have a profound effect on the lives of Irish women.

The effect of the introduction of free secondary education was immediate. Only two out of five 19 year olds in 1960 had completed secondary education; in 1975 it was three out of five; by 1997 it was four out of five. Because there had always been some working class boys whose parents scraped enough together to educate them out of poverty, the introduction of free secondary education had a greater effect on girls than on boys. Between 1971 and 1981 the number of girls at secondary school increased by over 100 percent and the number at third level by 180 percent, compared with 94 percent and 60 percent for boys. [55]

Between 1961 and 1971 there was a slight decrease in the number of women in the labour force. Between 1971 and 1983, as emigration slowed, the total number of women at work grew by 34 percent – the number of married women in the labour force grew by 425 percent. In 1971 there were 275,600 women aged 15 and over in the workforce, of whom fewer than 24,000 were married. By 1983 there were 389,000 women in the labour force, of whom 128,000 were married. The removal in 1973 of the marriage bar in the public service made a clear difference. [56] Women’s earnings relative to men’s stayed the same from 1955 to 1971. In virtually all years average hourly earnings for women equalled 57 percent of the male average. Then between 1971 and 1984 female earnings rose from 57 percent to 68 percent of male earnings. Although equal pay legislation had been enacted in 1976, few employers granted equality unless it was forced on them through workers’ struggles. Much of the increase in average female earnings was due to changes in the kind of jobs women were able to get. [57]

Slow as these changes were, they started to chip away at the notion that everyone was happy living with sexual repression and church domination. Dissatisfaction and anger which had been kept firmly under the surface started to emerge. The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was founded in 1970 by a small group of mainly professional women, many of them journalists and/or socialists. Inspired by the civil rights movements in the US and the North, and the WLM in Britain and the US, it was at that time very much a movement for liberation for all women. Thus the six demands of the first manifesto of the Irish WLM in 1971 mainly related to issues that most affected working class women. They were:
  1. Equal rights in law.
  2. Equal pay and the removal of the marriage bar.
  3. Justice for widows, single mothers and deserted wives.
  4. Equal educational opportunities.
  5. The right to contraception.
  6. One family, one house. [58]
The first four of these demands dovetailed, at least to some extent, with the needs of developing Irish capitalism. The right to contraception and rights for mothers who had never been married, as opposed to widows and separated women, were more problematic as they involved going against the Catholic church. Providing single mothers with even the most miserly benefits would be seen as “encouraging immorality”.

The early WLM fell apart within a few years, partly through exhaustion, partly because of splits between those who wanted to get into “consciousness raising” and women-only issues and those who wanted to campaign on class demands like contraception and housing. Irish Women United was set up in 1974, mainly by socialists. In 1976 the Contraception Action Programme (CAP), an organisation of women and men, started to defy the law by selling condoms and spermicides. CAP members set up stalls at open markets, rock festivals, anywhere they could invite arrest. The police obviously had instructions to ignore the provocation. [59]

In 1979 Charles Haughey, then Minister for Health, introduced a bill to make contraception legally available to married couples “for bona fide family planning purposes only”. It permitted contraceptives to be bought legally – but only on prescription. He described the law as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. It has since emerged that at the time he was involved in a longstanding extra-marital affair. It was not until 1985 that the sale of condoms without prescription to over 18 year olds was legalised. Even then they were to be sold only through pharmacies.

1. Cited in T. Inglis, Lessons in Irish Sexuality (Dublin 1998), pp.10-11.
2. Irish Examiner, 4 December 2000.
3. For a full discussion, see L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989).
4. T. Inglis, Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society (Dublin 1987), p.117.
5. M. NicGiolla Phadraigh, Religious Practice and Secularisation, in P. Clancy, S. Drudy, K. Lynch and L. O’Dowd, Ireland: A Sociological Profile (Dublin 1986), p.147.
6. M. Ruane, The Irish Journey: Women’s Stories of Abortion (IFPA, 2000).
7. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, 1848-1918 (Dublin 1973), p.6.
8. J.C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603-1923 (London 1966), p.173.
9. G. O Tuathaigh, Ireland Before the Famine 1798-1848 (Dublin 1972), p.137.
10. J.J. Lee, Women and the Church Since the Famine, in M. MacCurtain and D. O’Corrain (eds), Women in Irish Society (Dublin 1978).
11. G. O Tuathaigh, op. cit., p.206.
12. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, op. cit.
13. T. Inglis, Moral Monopoly, op. cit., p118.
14. E. Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (London 1951), p.104.
15. R.E. Kennedy, The Irish, Emigration, Marriage and Fertility (London 1973).
16. C. Clear, The Limits of Female Autonomy: Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland, in M. Luddy and C. Murphy, Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women’s History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Dublin 1990), p.21.
17. R.E. Kennedy, op. cit.
18. C. Clear, Walls Within Walls: Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland, in C. Curtain, P. Jackson and A. O’Connor (eds), Gender in Irish Society (Galway, 1987).
19. R.E. Kennedy, op. cit.
20. NESC, The Social and Economic Impact of Emigration (Dublin 1990).
21. J.J. Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, op. cit.
22. Ibid., p168.
23. C. Curtain and A. Varley, Marginal Men? Bachelor Farmers in a West of Ireland Community, and A. O’Hare and A. O’Connor, Gender Differences in Treated Mental Illness in the Republic of Ireland, both in C. Curtain et al., op. cit.
24. See E. McCann, War and an Irish Town (London 1974), and M. Farrell, Northern Ireland: the Orange State (London 1976) for the best accounts.
25. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge 1989), p.190.
26. M. Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries (Dingle 1983), p.235.
27. Quoted in K. Allen, Fianna Fail and Irish Labour (London 1997), p.59.
28. Quoted in M. Jones, These Obstreperous Lassies: A History of the IWWU (Dublin 1988).
29. See, for example, L. McShane, Day Nurseries in Northern Ireland: Gender Ideology in Social Policy, in C. Curtain et al., op. cit.
30. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit.
31. Quoted in M. Milotte, Banished Babies: the Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business (Dublin 1997), pp.140-141.
32. Ibid., pp.144-145.
33. M. Rafferty and E. O’Sullivan, Suffer the Little Children: the Inside Story of Ireland’s Industrial Schools (Dublin 1999), p.26.
34. Ibid., p.28.
35. See, for example, the story of Mary Norris, ibid., pp.29-40.
36. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.124.
37. Central Statistics Office, That was Then, This is Now: Changes in Ireland 1949-1999 (Dublin, 2000), pp.36-37.
38. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.362.
39. E. McCann, op. cit., p.15.
40. Quoted in U. Barry, Who Owns Ireland – Who Owns You? (Dublin 1985), p.58.
41. K. Allen, The Politics of James Connolly (London 1990), p.28.
42. Ibid., p.4.
43. P. Murray, A Militant Among the Magdalens?, in Saothar 20 (1995), pp.11-54.
44. Ibid.
45. M. Jones, op. cit., p.176.
46. T. Cliff, Marxism on Oppression, in Marxism at the Millennium (London 2000), p.50.
47. Quoted in M. Ward, op. cit., p.224.
48. Ibid., p.13.
49. Quoted in R.E. Kennedy, op. cit., p.159.
50. See M. Ward, op. cit.
51. See M. Jones, op. cit., ch.12. The following description of the laundry workers’ strike is taken from that work.
52. J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, op. cit., p.378.
53. For a full account of this period, see K. Allen, op. cit., ch.5.
54. Ibid., ch.6.
55. Ibid., p.35.
56. Ibid., p.36.
57. Ibid., p.39.
58. For an outline of the early history of the women’s movement in Ireland, see A. Smyth, The Contemporary Women’s Movement in the Republic of Ireland, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol.11, no.4, pp.331-341, or J. Levine, Sisters (Dublin 1982), ch.6.
59. See J. Levine, ch.14.

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