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Families need real support, not constitutional tinkering

Our country is facing real and significant issues that call for political leadership: a housing crisis, the threat of war, soaring energy prices, interest rates, and inflation – all demand a response. And so, naturally our Taoiseach’s attention is on provisions of the Constitution that have never caused the least difficulty in the history of the Republic.

In response to questions last week from the Oireachtas Gender Equality Committee, Micheál Martin said that he would like to see a referendum on Article 41.2 of the Constitution, which states: “In particular, 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.” The Committee is due to report again to the houses of the Oireachtas, following on from the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations, which suggested that the text be deleted and replaced with non-gender specific language.

The Committee’s Interim report, published last July, contains a foreword by its Cathaoirleach, Ivana Bacik. In it she states:

“It has long been agreed that the way in which women and mothers are referred to in Article 41 is based on outdated gender stereotypes and should have no place in a constitutional text.”

This statement would seem to suggest that the very mention of women in the home in the Constitution is offensive to some. Not, mind you, to the women who provide the support to the State to which the Constitution refers and who contribute so much to the common good. Rather, sad to say, to other women – and men who often benefit from and rely on their wives (whether stay-at-home or working) to keep the family show on the road.

It is the enduring – and utterly destructive – legacy of feminism to pit working mothers against stay-at-home mothers, in order to underline the feminist view that work in the home is of a lower order. Paradoxically, feminists buy into a stereotypically “male” view of the world, in which only remunerated work is treated as “real” work, and one’s worth can be determined by the amount of that remuneration.

Praise for women in the home, or – worse still – recognition that, even today, many women aspire to a domestic life, is seen as detracting from the advances made outside the home. Esteem is a treated as a finite resource, so that any allocation is necessarily “zero-sum”: more praise for the homemaker means less for the go-getting careerist. This leads to a dispiriting and impoverished view of home life and domesticity.

Yet women’s interest in home life remains stubbornly resistant to the decrees of our feminist betters. The narrative in which women as a whole are more interested in a career than in family and home is a lie. This is evident if one only follows the money. Advertising agencies sell things, and in order to do so, spend vast sums on research tailoring their messages to particular demographics. According to them, although women make up 51% of the population, they make 90% of household purchasing decisions.

As between men and women, who do you think represents the majority readership for Good Housekeeping magazine? Who do you think does the majority of the spending when buying clothes and shoes for children? Who takes most interest in how the house is decorated and presented generally? Who is the one who makes a house a home?

The second part of Article 41.2 states: “The State shall… endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” Politicians and activists look at a text like this and are unable see past the triggering words: “mothers”, “neglect”, and “duties”.

A more mature reading of the text is as a recognition that it is undesirable, both for women themselves and for society, when mothers are compelled by external pressures to work outside the home, contrary to their desires and in such a way as may lead them to feel that they are constantly torn between the pull of work pressures and struggling to do the best for their children. Surely it is better – for women, children, and all of us – to strive for a society in which, if a mother does decide to work outside the home, it should be her free choice, not something that is forced upon her by economic necessity.

It is a worthy aspiration that the State should see to the development of a society in which a family can be supported on one income. That is a duty that the State has never taken seriously – and certainly not since the introduction of tax individualisation. On the contrary, the State has been determined either to entice or to compel more and more women to enter the labour force. Successive governments have presided, in the name of economic progress, over a state-of-affairs in which it is all-but impossible for a young couple to buy a home for their family without both earning a salary.

Despite the fact that it is difficult, women – whether at home full time, or working full- or part-time – continue to prioritise their families. Perhaps the key to understanding why the Constitution acknowledges this is to look behind the facts.

Why is it that women who are educated, who have access to jobs and careers, still take more of an interest in their homes than their husbands? Why is it that women are more interested in staying at home or working part time than men? Why do women invest so much of their spare time in their homes and families? The answer, in short, is love. When you love somebody, you look after them, you are kind to them, you want to do things for them. Women express their love for their families by looking after them. Not only is there nothing wrong with this, it is something for which we should all be profoundly grateful. And if the gratitude of the State is expressed in words which the State, regrettably, often fails to live up to, the problem is with government policy, not with the Constitutional text.



Maria Steen is a former barrister, commentator and mother

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