Peter Berresford Ellis argues that the 1937 constitution made chauvinism an institution and was a betrayal of the women who had fought for Irish independence and equality
WHEN EAMON de Valéra instructed law officers in May, 1935, to prepare to draft a new constitution to replace the Free State constitution of 1922, making the state a republic in all but name, the resultant draft, which became the 1937 constitution, caused major protests among Irish women.
The fundamental principle of the 1916 proclamation, which guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens, echoed by the 1922 constitution, guaranteeing those rights to every person "without distinction of sex", had been changed.
Historians have spent much time discussing the "dictionary republic" status of the new state and cause célèbre of de Valéra's Article 44.1. The latter article was the one which gave special recognition to the Catholic Church as the church of the majority of the population in the state - argued about for many years and used as an excuse by unionists to justified the claim that the Irish state was "ruled by Rome".
The conflict over the anti-feminist clauses has been largely ignored. Article 40.1 declared that all citizens should be equal before the law but the state could, "in its enactments" have "due regard to differences of capacity, physical and moral, and of social function". This was certainly not a guarantee of the 1916 "equal rights and opportunities".
One wonders if George Orwell, in Animal Farm, used it as the inspiration of his slogan "All Animals Are Equal; But Some Are More Equal Than Others".
Article 41.2.1 became famous as "a woman's place is in the home" statement -
"the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved".
Because of this the next section went on to express the desire that it would endeavour to ensure that mothers should not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
Now what support did the state offer? Certainly not that of poor Dr Noel Browne's Mother and Child health care scheme which brought out the Catholic hierarchy in outraged droves against "socialised medicine" that was "opposed to Catholic social teaching".
While women should be in the home producing children and looking after their menfolk, they would have to fend for themselves. Needless to record, the coalition government of which Brown's was health minister fell in June, 1951.
So much for Article 45.4.1 in which the state pledged itself to
"safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged".
The greatest insult women felt was enshrined in Article 45.4.2 in which the state ensured
"that the inadequate strength of women and the tender age of children shall not be abused, and that women or children shall not be forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength".
What avocations, one wonders, are unsuited to woman and which only men can do?
The Irish Independent columnist Gertrude Gaffney (who was also a war correspondent in Spain) was in no doubt what the constitution meant:
"The death knell of the working woman is sounded in this new constitution. Mr de Valéra has always been a reactionary where women are concerned. He dislikes and distrusts us as a sex and his aim ever since he came into office has been to put us into what he considers our place and keep us there."
Summarising the changes, Gertrude Gaffney said they made women
"no longer citizens entitled to enjoy equal rights under a democratic constitution, but laws are to be enacted which will take into consideration our `differences of capacity, physical and moral and social function".
The strongest protests came from graduate women and women who had fought in the war of independence and civil war.
Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) was, of course, dead by the time de Valéra started to relegate women to a rural idyll, producing children, cleaning the home and feeding her man.
Markievicz's reaction would be fairly predictable. She had fought as secondin- command of Michael Mallin's unit of the Citizen's Army in St Stephen's Green and been sentenced to death for her role in the insurrection. Doubtless de Valéra felt that she aspired to an "avocation unsuited for her sex".
Yet, standing as a Sinn Féin candidate, she had been the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons in 1918. She did not take her seat but when UDI was declared took her seat in the first Dáil Éireann and became the first woman in Europe to be given a cabinet post as minister of labour, a post she held also in the second Dáil.
One of Markiewicz's friends and colleagues was Dr Kathleen Lynn (1874- 1955), a medical doctor, feminist and revolutionary, who tended the hunger striking suffragettes and the injured workers during the 1913 Dublin Lock- Out. She served in the Irish Citizen Army and was medical officer with the insurgents in St Stephen's Green, along with Markiewicz. Imprisoned, she was eventually released to become one of four women to serve on the national executive of Sinn Féin. Taking the anti- Treaty side, she was elected to the Dáil in 1923 but refused to take her seat.
When the Irish Catholic hailed the draft constitution and its new role for women as being "noble", Dr Lynn commented laconically: "That damns it, if nothing else."
Initially, the principle opposition came from the Irish Women Workers' Union, lead by Louie Bennett. They sent a delegation to de Valéra. Curiously, after Louie Bennett had a private interview with de Valéra when he offered to amend some wording but without changing anything vital, the IWWU withdrew as an organisation from the protests.
Only the Irish Women Graduates' Association became the focal point for opposition under its chairwoman Mary Kettle and of which Dr Lynn was a member. They noted that
"the omission of the principle of equal rights and opportunities enunciated in the Proclamation of 1916 and confirmed in Article 3 of the Constitution of the Saorstat Éireann was deplored as sinister and retrogressive."
Among the opposition was one of de Valéra's staunchest supporters from the early years. The activist, historian, playwright and novelist, Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958) who is best remembered as the author of the Irish Republic 1916-1923, which was to be published that year (1937) by Gollancz and remains the definitive overall work on the period.
Little recognised now is the fact that she was also the author of one of the greatest ghost stories written in the English language - The Uninvited, made into an Oscar-winning film in 1944.
Dorothy had remained steadfast to the ideals of 1916, was imprisoned by the Free State during the civil war, and became a member of the first national executive of Fianna Fáil in 1926.
She had been a constant supporter of de Valéra but was now saddened by his betrayal of 1916. On 21 May 21 1937, she wrote to de Valéra:
"as the constitution stands, I do not see how anyone holding advanced views on the rights of women can support it, and that is a tragic dilemma for those who have been loyal and ardent workers in the national cause".
Her letter was not the only personal one that de Valéra received from his former women comrades. Cumann na mBan were particularly angered by such phrases as the "inadequate strength of women" when they had been active in the war of independence conveying machine-guns, rifles, explosives and other heavy military equipment. They had been incensed over their unequal treatment under the Military Service Pensions Act of 1934.
Then came a bombshell for the movement when Bridie O'Mullane published a letter in the Irish Press, on behalf of Cumann na mBan, asking everyone to support de Valéra. Dr Lynn was astonished. She wrote:
"They got her to do it… they felt our opposition so much". How 'they' (Fianna Fáil) were able to apply pressure she does not say. In spite of cartoons in Dublin Opinion, showing Queen Maeve and Gráinne O'Malley threatening de Valéra over the constitution, de Valéra, speaking in the Dáil in May 11, claimed that "there is nothing in this constitution which in any way detracts from the rights which women have possessed here".
The campaign against the constitution by women's organisations had little effect. It was accepted by 685,105 votes to 526,945 votes - a majority of 158,160. Only five of the constituencies - Dublin township, Dublin county, Cork county, West Sligo and Wicklow (Irish Press, 17 July 1937) voted against the new constitution.
Even after it was passed, woman continued to campaign against it. As a consequence, a women's political party - the Women's Social and Political League - was founded on 24 November 1937.
The founder of the party was none other than Dorothy Macardle. She told the Irish Independent, on 25 November 1937, that she considered
"the organisation of the body a humiliating necessity and she never before thought that such a necessity would arise in Ireland. It had arisen because men had organised the sexes separately and to the detriment of women."
A historian is now hard pressed to find any reference to this party, which was designed to promote and protect the social and economic status of women.
A few years ago Professor Maria Luddy gave an excellent paper on the subject at the Royal Holloway University of London, but did not go into its apparently brief history. Certainly, during 1938, Dorothy Marcardle was in Geneva reporting for the Irish Press during de Valéra's period as 19th President of the League of Nations.
And now came another fundamental political split with her old comrade. A confirmed anti- Fascist, Dorothy disagreed with the policy of neutrality. "Hitler's war should be everyone's war!" she declared.
She went to London and did work for the BBC and pursued her fiction writing career. But her main work was with refugees from Nazism and during the late 1940s she travelled widely through Europe concerned especially with the problems of refugee children.
In 1949 Victor Gollancz published her second most impressive non-fiction work Children of Europe, a study of the children in the liberated countries, showing their war time experiences, their reactions to them and their current needs. The work is still highly regarded, especially where it concerns the emotional experiences of children in a war situation.
In 1951 Dorothy became president of the Irish Association for Civil Liberties. In 1958, she was accorded a state funeral with Seán T O'Kelly, attending as president, along with taoiseach de Valéra and members of the Dáil and Senate. Her coffin was draped in the Irish tricolour with a guard of honour mounted by IRA veterans of the Four Courts garrison.
De Valéra, in spite of Dorothy's campaign against his 1937 constitution and her views on Irish neutrality, said at the funeral oration:
"Dorothy Macardle was one of the noble, valiant women of our time, an active champion of every cause that seemed to her to be good. I've never met anyone more intellectually honest. She had a horror of hypocrisy or pretence in any form. She worked incessantly. Of her, indeed, could truly be said, she was a lover of labour and truth."
Certainly, Dorothy did not confirm with his view that a woman's place was in the home, scrubbing, cleaning and producing children for church and state.
But, alas, it would be left to the generation of the 1970s to make a new feminist campaign in Ireland to start to change matters back to the ideals of 1916, ideals that have still not been achieved.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2006 Peter Berresford Ellis