Saturday, March 10, 2012

Changing women’s lives in Ireland: part 1

by Goretti Horgan

(Part 1)

Until the last few years of the 1990s Ireland had the reputation of being the most sexually repressed country in Europe, where women were second class citizens and the Catholic church ruled virtually unchallenged. But things have changed fast. A national survey in 1973-1974 found that three out of four people thought sex outside marriage was always wrong. A survey in 1997 found that 21 to 24 year olds had, on average, had 13 different sexual partners. [1] In 1990 Dublin’s Virgin Megastore was fined £500 for selling condoms. In 1999 the Dublin government spent £500,000 promoting the use of condoms. [2] While Gordon Brown felt it necessary to get married to enhance his chances of becoming prime minister in Britain, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, lives openly with his (unmarried) partner who accompanies him on state visits as “first lady”.

The point of this article is to argue that these changes have come about not, as media commentators would have it, because of EU-inspired liberalisation nor, as feminists would have it, solely because of “the women’s movement”. Rather change has been generated mainly by shifts in patterns of production. In short, it is changes in capitalism that have led to changes in women’s lives, the family and attitudes to sex and sexuality.

Marxists argue that women’s oppression is rooted in our role in the reproduction of the next generation of workers. The way reproduction is organised depends on the way production is organised – women’s oppression can be ended only by overthrowing capitalism and bringing production under workers’ control. [3] The story of Ireland in the last 20 years shows there is nothing abstract about this analysis. It also shows the intervention of socialists can be crucial in ensuring progress.

Despite Ireland being synonymous with sexual repression, there was never anything “Irish” or inevitable about it. The reason women’s rights were so lacking can be traced to changes in the form of the family, and to the way reproduction was organised from the middle of the 19th century.

Family and famine
Marriage in Ireland up to 150 years ago was as informal as it is today for many “living as married” couples – the Penal Laws, which Britain had introduced in the mid-17th century making Catholics second class citizens, meant that, while the church was identified with the oppressed, it had little effect on the oppressed’s day to day life. In 1793 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:1,587. [4] In 1840 it was 1:3,023. There were very few church buildings. [5] The church had little influence on family life or on sexual mores generally. This section examines how changes in women’s role in production following the Great Famine led to changes in how reproduction was organised within the family.
Before the famine attitudes to sex remained open, were often earthy, and celebrated women’s sexuality as well as men’s. The Midnight Court, a long poem written in Irish in 1780-1781, described an imagined court of women putting the men of Ireland on trial for being useless in bed. The poem, banned in its English translations until the last decades of the 20th century, gives some insight into attitudes to women’s sexuality. Here an older woman laments the plight of a younger sister, married to an old man with no interest in sex:
Line by line she bade him linger
With gummy lips and groping finger,
Gripping his thighs in wild embrace
Rubbing her brush from knee to waist
Stripping him bare to the cold night air,
Everything done with love and care.
But she’d nothing to show for all her labour;
There wasn’t a jump in the old deceiver.
The idea of women controlling their fertility was not the taboo subject it was to become. There was a folktale about St Brigid – supposedly a contemporary of St Patrick – who was renowned for her work with fertility in all its forms. Brigid met a young woman distressed because she was pregnant: “Brigid prayed, then she blessed the woman, laid hands on her womb, and the foetus miraculously disappeared”. [6]

Until the Great Famine of 1845-1851 the custom in Ireland, among all but the large farmer class, was to divide the land between all the sons in a family as they married. This could be done at any time, so people were able to get married very young. Early marriage meant many children and, from the end of the 17th century, a rapid rise in population. This rise was boosted by the very low rate of infant mortality which, as a result of widespread breastfeeding and the nutritional value of the potato, was below 10 percent – half that in most parts of Europe. [7] So, while the population was around 1.5 million in 1673, it had risen to 3 million by the 1750s and to 4 million by the 1780s. [8] This escalation continued in the early 19th century. By 1821 the population had reached 6,802,000; it rose to 7,767,000 in 1831 and 8,175,000 by 1841. [9]

At this time marriage for the majority was based on love and on the skills which each partner brought to the family – the man provided land and farming skills to grow the staple crop of potatoes, and the woman brought weaving and spinning skills which provided extra money to buy tea, sugar and whatever else was needed by the household. Her input to the agricultural work of the family was also important. Before the famine women made an essential contribution to the family economy. As late as 1841 women accounted for more than half of the non-agricultural workforce. Most of their economic independence was based on spinning wool, cotton and linen. But the growth of factory competition undermined this – between 1841 and 1851 the number of spinners fell by some 75 percent. Only in the Belfast region, where linen became a factory industry, did this work survive the combination of the famine and the industrial revolution. [10]

The famine decimated the rural poor. Almost a million died of starvation, while several million were forced to emigrate. Their tiny plots were taken over by the larger tenant farmers holding 15 acres or more. This large tenant farmer class was – apart from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – the only class to survive the famine intact, and emerged as by far the strongest class in Catholic Ireland. In 1841 only 18 percent of landholdings in Ireland were of more than 15 acres. By 1851 51 percent of holdings were over 15 acres. By 1891 this had risen to 58 percent. At the same time the total numbers of holdings had fallen from 691,000 in 1841 to 570,000 in 1851 and 517,000 in 1891. [11These economic and social changes forced the workers and rural poor of Ireland to drastically alter their form of the family. For a generation before the famine the larger tenant farmer class had shunned subdivision of land and early marriage, as it struggled to achieve primitive accumulation of wealth. It was this which ensured its survival in the famine. [12] In the aftermath it became clear that if a repeat of the “Great Calamity” was to be avoided, the practices of the better-off would have to be adopted by the poorer classes. Thus the custom of dividing the land between all the sons in a family would have to be discontinued and the land passed on to one son only. Further the number of children born to families would have to be limited.

The role of the Catholic church was crucial to these changes in family life. The church was, in effect, the large tenant farmer class at prayer. Most priests came from this layer – Catholics who could afford to educate their children. In the early 19th century the cost of sending a son to Maynooth for the first year was £40 to £50 at a time when the average wage was about a shilling a day. In 1808, of the 205 students in Maynooth seminary, 78 percent were the sons of farmers – and it was only the larger farmers who could afford to send their sons there. [13]

The church provided the ideological basis for the sexual repression which ensured the pattern of late marriages and what came to be called “permanent celibacy” which was to become the norm in Ireland right up to the second half of the 20th century. Changing the sexual mores of centuries would be no easy task under normal circumstances. But the aftermath of a catastrophe which saw the population almost halve, from 8 million in 1841 to 4.5 million in 1861, was not a normal circumstance. Carrying on “normal life” after the famine was impossible.

In this situation the church was able to offer the traditional religious explanations for disaster and, by providing spiritual consolation to those who survived, to consolidate its position. This, together with the lack of a clear economic role for women, gave the church the opportunity to become intimately involved in Irish family life. The number of priests, drawn from the increasingly dominant strong farmer milieu, rose dramatically between 1861 and 1911 – a time when the overall population was declining. By 1911 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:210. [14] In 1926 2 percent of all single males aged 45 to 54 were priests or monks. [15] The church preached the centrality of marriage and the family, the evils of all sexual activity not aimed at procreation, and held up the Virgin Mary as the model for all women. It offered women a new role: that of transmitters of the Catholic teaching that all sexual activity outside marriage, or not aimed at conceiving children, is evil.

In most countries the religious head of the household is the man. In Ireland, to this day, it is generally the woman. Women in the post-famine period were offered the role said to be the most important in society – bringing up children in the Catholic faith. To a large extent women had little choice in this. There was nothing else on offer and, in return for embracing the new morality, they received a level of respect, of status, even authority, which they could not otherwise have expected, given their changed economic role. This period also saw a tremendous explosion in devotion to the Madonna and in the practice of reciting the Rosary (a prayer to the Virgin). All over the country shrines of devotion to Mary sprang up. The Virgin Mother was the model for Irish women. The alternative was the convent or emigration.

Nuns made up one of the largest groups of women workers in Ireland right up to the 1970s. For many young women, faced with a choice of marriage or emigration, the convent seemed a place where it would be possible to have a job, respect and status. The number of nuns in Ireland increased eightfold between 1841 and 1901, despite a near halving of the Catholic population. This increase had started before the famine. At the beginning of the 19th century there were 11 convents in Ireland. Immediately after the famine the number stood at 91. By 1900 the number of convents had rocketed to 368 and the average size of each had grown. [16]

But becoming a nun was not an option open to all. Entry to the convent was expensive. Canon law stipulated that every entrant should bring a certain sum of money. In the mid-19th century the lowest acceptable sum was £200. The average dowry was almost £400. As a result, many nuns were from wealthy backgrounds. Most were the daughters of comfortable, large farmers or shop owners. By the end of the 19th century civil servants, clerks and other white collar workers were beginning to be able to find the dowry. In spite of the expense, one in 20 Irish women were entering the convent in the early 20th century. In 1926 some 4.9 percent of all single females aged 45 to 54 were nuns and lay sisters. [17]

For those with a vocation and no dowry, the only way to join a religious community was as a “lay sister”. These were known colloquially as “skivvies” and were, in effect, servants to the dowried nuns. Their habits included an apron and looked like a maid’s uniform. Like servants in the big houses, lay sisters ate either before or after and apart from the dowried nuns. While anyone who wants to be a nun is admitted to the convent today, the class distinction between lay sisters and “proper” nuns whose families could afford the dowry remained until the 1980s. [18]

Right up to the late 1980s huge numbers of Irish women chose emigration rather than live unemployed and dependent on their male relatives in this mean, narrow-minded, repressive society. About one third of emigrants to the United States from Europe as a whole between 1850 and 1950 were women. From Ireland the proportion was well over half. Most women who emigrated from Europe went as part of a family unit. The majority of Irish women emigrants were single and travelled alone (see Table 1). Ireland was unique in having more women than men emigrate, and the differences were dramatic. While there were between three and six times more men than women emigrants from some other countries, from Ireland there were almost twice as many women as men. [19]
Table 1: Sex of Five Groups of
Foreign-Born White Workers
Ten Years Old and over
in Six States of the US in 1920
& Wales
Source: R.E. Kennedy, The Irish, Emigration, Marriage and Fertility (London 1973)
This pattern of mass emigration, especially of women, continued up to the last decades of the 20th century. In 1960, for example, of the women aged 15 to 19 in 1942 more than half were living outside Ireland. [20] Despite this, emigration was seen as a male phenomenon, largely because most emigrants went to Britain and many of these were married men whose wives and children remained in Ireland, keeping consciousness of these emigrants high. Women who went to England were more likely to be single and to stay away.

For those who eschewed the convent or emigration, the role of Virgin Mother was not always on offer. In 1926 some 26 percent of women remained unmarried at 45, compared to about 10 percent before the famine. Late arranged marriages meant that women, if they married at all, married men considerably older than themselves. Before the famine about 20 percent of husbands were ten years older than their wives. By the early 20th century the proportion had risen to about 50 percent. [21]
In the 1930s almost three quarters of 25 to 34 year old men remained single in Ireland compared to a third in England and Wales. In the 1960s half of all 25 to 34 year old men remained single compared with only one in five men in England and Wales. The higher rate of female emigration was a huge factor in this. In fact, at no time after 1881 were there enough single women to marry all the single men in Ireland. For most of the 20th century there were over 140 men for every 100 women in the 45 to 54 age group. In 1961, in rural areas, there were 244 single men for every 100 single women among 45 to 54 year olds. [22]

As these figures indicate, while life choices for women were very limited, things weren’t a bed of roses for men either. Told that women were an “occasion of sin” since the time of Eve, separated from them in school, church and social occasions, they were often frightened silly of their wives when their parents finally arranged a marriage – usually when the “boy” had passed 45. And those were the lucky ones. The official lunacy rate in Ireland quadrupled between 1841 and 1901. Up to the 1980s men – particularly those from the rural west – continued to have vastly higher rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals. [23]

Emigration, late marriage and permanent celibacy ensured that the population continued to decline until the mid-1960s. The population of the Republic reached a historical low of 2.8 million in 1961. The aim of holding the land together was met and the material and cultural level of Irish society rose. The Land Acts of the late 19th century had allowed tenant farmers to buy their land and the conditions for the basic accumulation of capital necessary for the development of indigenous capitalism were all in place.

The “carnival of reaction”

The strong tenant farmer class became the emerging capitalist class. With the tiny urban bourgeoisie, they were the group in a position to accumulate. After the War of Independence, when Britain withdrew from the 26 counties, they were the class which came to power in the South. Connolly had predicted that partition would bring a “carnival of reaction” North and South. Women in the North were needed to work in the linen and textile industry and did not suffer the same level of exclusion from the workforce as women in the South. Nonetheless, North and South, the sectarian, indeed confessional, nature of both states meant a heavy hand of sexual repression and severely limited options for women.

Much has been written about the sectarian nature of the Northern state.
[24] Its mirror image in the South has usually been obscured by the North’s dark shadow. After independence the spectre of revolution haunted the island. The church moved to protect the interests of its long-time class allies and to legitimise the new “Free State”. Its allies reciprocated, making divorce illegal and banning even information about contraception. The chair of the Censorship of Films and Publications Committee was given to clerics, and the church’s grip on education and the hospitals was confirmed
Less than a decade into the existence of the Free State, the needs of capital again coincided with Catholic teaching on the family. While in 1926 fewer than one woman in ten worked in industry, by the early 1930s this had more than doubled. Most of these jobs were unskilled and in new light industries such as clothing, food, drink and tobacco. But this growth in women’s employment was accompanied by economic depression and rising unemployment among men. [25] In 1935 Section 16 of the Conditions of Employment Act allowed the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass, to prohibit the employment of women in industry. It also fixed the proportion of women workers to other (male and child) workers and forbade employers to employ more women than men in cases where a ministerial order had been made on a specific industry.

When legislation was introduced in mid-19th century Britain restricting the right of women to work in certain industries, for example the mines, the reason given was the danger to women’s health. There was no such rationalisation in Section 16. It was a clear attempt to remove women from the workplace as a way of reducing male unemployment. It gave unlimited power, with no right of appeal, to the Minister of Industry and Commerce, and could have brought a blanket ban on women workers if the politicians so decreed. [26]

The Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) initially supported Section 16, prompted by the attitude of the leaders of the largest union in Congress, the ITGWU. At the ITUC’s 1935 Congress, held in the Guildhall in Derry, ITGWU senator Tom Kennedy argued that “it was the first measure to give male labour their rightful place in the new industries”. [27] Helena Molony of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) responded, telling delegates that “it was terrible to find such reactionary opinions expressed ... by responsible leaders of labour in support of a capitalist minister in setting up a barrier against one set of citizens”. [28]

After discussions with the IWWU, in which the women offered a compromise agreeing to the allocation of specific work to women, Congress agreed that it had to oppose Section 16.
The Labour Party, however, gave it complete support in the Dail and the Senate, and argued against the introduction of equal pay for women as a means of ensuring that women would not be used as cheap labour in preference to men. When the Conditions of Employment Act was passed, with Section 16 intact, the International Labour Organisation in Geneva placed Ireland on a blacklist.
In 1937 the new constitution gave a special place to the church and also to women. The special place for the church was at the head of Irish society. The special place for women was in the home. This meant that women were expected to have a life outside the home only while waiting to get married. This ideology proved useful for a state that had neither the means nor the inclination to invest in social services.

It was a life of drudgery, isolation and grinding poverty for most working class women. With none of the labour saving devices common today, work in the home was physically exhausting and mind-numbingly repetitive. Just 30 years ago our mothers or grandmothers had to devote an entire day each week to the washing – and another day to ironing. Many had little choice but to find some work in the home to supplement the family income, often sewing, knitting, washing and ironing for better-off women. When the children were older and at school, they went out to clean the houses of better-off women.

Women were needed in the textile factories of the North and there their right to work was not restricted by legislation. With wages much lower than elsewhere in the UK, few men earned enough to support a family, and working class women had no choice but to work. However, the “carnival of reaction” meant working class women could not presume they would enjoy the benefits won by their counterparts in the rest of the “United Kingdom”. Every aspect of the welfare state which workers won in the years after the Second World War was resisted by the Unionist government in Stormont and Catholic bishops alike. [29]

Sex and childbearing
With the sexual repression of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had come the suppression of traditional methods of birth control. In the first edition of
Peig, the story of an old woman’s life on the Blasket Islands in the extreme west of Ireland at the start of the 20th century, Peig explained that Blaskets women had controlled the number of children they conceived by fashioning a kind of cervical cap from beeswax. There is also some evidence that herbs and the bark of certain trees were used to induce early abortions. But all this information was suppressed and, although there were always midwives who were willing to help desperate women end intolerable pregnancies, most women came to accept that sexual activity and having babies were inextricably linked.

So sex became something that men sought and women feared. The jokes about sex being the price women paid for marriage and marriage the price men paid for sex reflected the reality of most people’s lives. Inevitably, contraception was always available to the better-off, who could go to the right doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm or travel abroad and bring supplies of condoms home. To this day a family with just two children is known in Ireland as a “gentleman’s family”!

Of course, for working class people, there were many contradictions. Sex was “the poor man’s opera” and many a poor woman’s opera: “There is no poverty between the blankets.” Constant childbearing was made worse by grinding poverty and dreadful housing conditions. Housing was expensive and grossly overcrowded. In 1926 half of all families in Dublin city and a third of all families in Cork and Limerick cities lived in “homes” of one or two rooms – at a time when the average size of a household was six or more. [30] Overcrowding remained a huge problem into the 1970s, so much so that “one family, one house” was one of the six demands of the early women’s movement.
The scandal of the majority of the population living in dreadful conditions was ignored by those who were doing well from property speculation arising from the housing shortage. The biggest building contractors have always been associated with Fianna Fail and could rely on the party to look after them, while church-made morality was seen to apply only to matters of sex.

Magdalen Laundries and Industrial Schools
While the price of sex within marriage was high, the penalty for sex outside marriage was exorbitant. If a working class woman became pregnant outside marriage, she had to leave her home in disgrace and go to one of the Magdalen Laundries or “Good Shepherd” convents. Her parents had no choice but to turn her out. Any parents who tried to stand by their daughters had the priest hammering at the door, telling them it was their Christian duty to turn their back on their child.

In recent years the truth about the abuse, even torture, of women and children in the laundries and “orphanages” has been revealed. “Pat” described her two years in a mother and baby home in 1963 and 1964:
You couldn’t get out of the outside gate, you just weren’t allowed ... Someone always made a run for it but they were caught and dragged back ... We were bad girls, we’d had sex. We were shamed ... Six weeks after your baby was born they reckoned you were fit for work. Most of the girls were put out in the farm, working in the fields or the gardens or with the pigs and cattle. Or they were put to cleaning. Girls worked in the dormitories, the laundry, the kitchens ... [31]
The nuns, with the collusion of the state, even sold the women’s babies. “Pat” told journalist Mike Milotte about the American couples who came to the home looking for a baby to adopt and her heartbreak when her son was taken to be adopted:
They had to be physically perfect, and none of the black babies that were there were ever selected ... No one ever discussed adoption with me ... I was just called over by one of the nuns and told he was going the next day ... I remember so clearly, bringing him down to the side door, hugging him, cuddling him and kissing him, and he was just swiped out of my arms by a nun. [32]
These offences did not take place in the dim, distant past. The now infamous Industrial Schools were still in operation as late as 1984. Most people over the age of 35 can remember being threatened as a child with being sent to one of these institutions if we didn’t behave.
The Industrial Schools, set up at the end of the 19th century, were known colloquially as “orphanages”. In fact, only about 5 percent of the children in them were orphans. The vast majority were there because of the poverty of their parents. Mary Raftery, the television producer who exposed the truth about the Industrial Schools, discovered that about 80 percent of all children committed to the schools and over 90 percent of the girls were detained under the category “lack of proper guardianship”. In practice, this meant the children of unmarried mothers, children who had lost one or both parents or whose families were unable to look after them due to poverty. In short, the Industrial Schools were “a crucial element in maintaining social control of the population”, a way of training servants and farm labourers for the Catholic middle classes and a method to “entrench and perpetuate a rigid class system in Ireland”. [33]

The Industrial Schools played a very important role in policing sexual repression. This is evidenced by the extraordinarily high numbers of girls in the Irish system compared to the UK. In 1933, for example, there were 1,123 girls in the system in all of Britain (population 40 million), as compared to a staggering 3,628 in Ireland (population 3 million). This was because many (poor) teenage girls were sent to Industrial Schools for the crime of being “sexually aware”. [34] Others were committed to the schools because of their mothers’ sexual activity. [35]

Health and education
With no health service and deep poverty, the number of children working class parents had to watch die was horrendous. Infant mortality soared. In 1926 in Ireland 120 of every 1,000 babies under the age of one died compared to six of every 1,000 today. [36] As late as 1949 over 50 of every 1,000 babies died before the age of one. One child in 16 born in 1949 did not live to see her or his fifth birthday. Diarrhoea and enteritis were the biggest killers of babies. Tuberculosis and other preventable and treatable diseases swept through the slums, killing older children. All these children died of poverty. [37]

The education system, too, was biased against the children of workers and the poor. While primary education was available free to those who could afford to buy books, paper and pens, and most people were at least semi-literate, secondary education was open to few. Children normally stayed in primary school until they reached 14 and then started work. Local authorities could provide scholarships, paid from the rates, for secondary school students. But local authorities were run by the business class who were not about to increase the rates just to help bright working class kids. As late as 1961 only 621 scholarships of this kind were available across the entire 26 counties. [38]

All primary schools were church-run. The overwhelming majority were managed by the Catholic parish priest, the rest by the local Church of Ireland parish. Successive education ministers reiterated their support for, indeed insistence on, church control of education. This “Catholic ethos” had a dreadful impact on the education of girls. Like their brothers, working class girls suffered discrimination, bullying and open snobbery from teachers, especially priests and nuns, if they managed to get some secondary education.

Eamonn McCann’s account of the treatment of working class “intruders” in Derry’s Catholic grammar describes a scene repeated in many Southern schools:
Priest in a maths class: “Where do you come from?” “Rossville Street.” “Oh yes, that’s where they wash once a month”. [39]
The bias in the education system was not only against working class children, but against all girls. Only a tiny layer of girls were allowed to aim for higher education. Most were taught to read and write, sew, cook and pray. Women were educated to be wives and mothers. This education began from the day they started school. As late as 1985 the curriculum at primary level stated that:
Separate arrangements in movement training may be made for boys and girls. Boys can now acquire skills and techniques and girls often become more aware of style and grace ... while a large number of songs are suited to boys, for example, martial, gay, humorous, rhythmic airs. Others are more suited to girls, for example, lullabies, spinning songs, songs tender in content and expression. [40]

Goretti Horgan is a socialist and women's rights activist living in Ireland.  She wrote this in 2001 Part 2 of this article is here

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