On July 25, 1973, the Irish Minister of Finance, Richie Ryan, introduced the Civil Service (Employment of Married Women) Act, which ended the nation’s long-standing ban on married women working for the government.
It’s not just that married women were encouraged not to work in Ireland. It’s that they were actually barred from working. It’s hard to overestimate the conservatism of Ireland during most of the twentieth century, a nation where the Catholic Church had more control than any other nation in the world, including Italy. This was a staunch patriarchy and women’s lives were tightly controlled by men, backed by the both church and state. Women could work in Ireland, but only within restricted spaces. Single women certainly were expected to work unless their fathers could take care of them, but they were relegated to low-paying jobs, often service work. Married women were outright discouraged from working and that included an actual ban on any kind of civil employment. That included teaching, long an area where women dominated much of the workforce. In Ireland, no small amount of teaching was done by nuns of course, but not all. Church publications actively discouraged married women from working and those had great power in Irish life.
For women who were interested in careers in the civil service, the choice was very real–marriage or job. Because you outright couldn’t have both. A few women rose pretty high in this society, such as Thekla Barre, who became Secretary of Transport and Power in 1959 and later chaired the first Commission on the Status of Women in Ireland in 1970. But she couldn’t marry if she wanted to hold that job and so she never did.
The root of the marriage bar was in 1924, when Arthur Blythe, the minister in charge of the civil service in the new Irish government, issued an edict barring women from working for the government. Like many of the Irish revolutionaries, he just flat did not want women working period and so this was one step he could make in that direction. Then disparate pay rates were created in 1925, paying single workers less than married workers, thus ensuring that all women made less for the same work as men. There were Irish women who fought this, but they largely failed to win. The marriage bar only grew stronger over the years, with laws in 1941 and 1956 codifying and strenghtening it further. Even for women who didn’t marry, the ability to advance was very difficult, especially in teaching, where many more educated single women ended up. They complained constantly about being passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified or experienced men.
By the early 1970s, the marriage bar got hard to uphold. The global feminist movement reached into Ireland too, where it had a lot of work to do. As Ireland’s allies in Europe and North America moved toward repealing some of their sexist laws, such as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, it became harder to defend a statutory law barring married women from such basic rights as holding a government job. Of course for poorer women, there was a whole other economy that supplemented incomes, from bookkeeping to selling eggs.
The real spur to the end of the marriage bar was the creation of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1970. It included one major union figure. Sheila Conroy was an executive in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union but had to resign her own position in 1959 when she married. Her husband then died in 1969 and she worked to get an appointment to the commission in order to push the status of women at work. Moreover, the commission was a way for various groups of Irish feminists to make their voice heard on the issue. Some were outside the church, some were explicitly Catholic, but nearly all wanted the marriage bar to end. As Ireland wanted to enter the European Economic Community, which happened in 1973, it needed to move on these issues to put it in line with the rest of the EEC. So the 1971 report Interim Report on Equal Pay came on a request from the government to lay the groundwork for changing the law. The fact that feminism and a less poor nation had led to smaller families also created some space for such a change to be considered by people who fifteen years earlier would have rejected it out of hand. Even the British had finally forced Northern Ireland to end this practice in 1970.
But even after the end of the marriage bar, it’s not as if it didn’t functionally exist. Many families still disapproved of this. The male patriarchal model does not go away based on a legal change. It would be a long and very very slow climb for relative economic equality in Irish society. This was especially true in wealthier homes, where the male wage could support an entire family. While media coverage of the change was fairly quiet, it did cause discomfort among many. Two years later, in 1975, only about 2 percent of civil service employees were married women, but still, at least they existed. Perhaps more significantly, formal labor force participation in Irish society for married women nearly doubled between 1971 and 1977, from 7.5 to 14.4 percent. By 1975, maternity leave became something married women could expect in civil service jobs, after a series of cases worked it out. But active discrimination against women continued until the Employment Equality Act of 1977 barred it explicitly. The EEA also eliminated pay differentials by gender.
However, it is also worth noting that the practice of barring women from work is something that has long term implications on a society. For example, in 2011, about 57,000 retired Irish women did not qualify for a full state pension from their work because of the years lost due to the marriage bar when they were young.
I borrowed from Deidre Foley, “‘Their Proper Place’: Women, Work, and the Marriage Bar in Ireland, 1924-1973” from the journal Social History and published in 2022, to write this post.
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