Maria Steen on the two referendums

Maria Steen addressed a meeting of The Iona Institute last month about the two upcoming referendums on the family, and carers.

She told the audience: “The first proposal is to get rid of what is misleadingly referred to as the ‘woman’s place is in the home’ provision of the Constitution. (There is no such provision.) The second seeks to transform the concept of the family so that it is no longer founded on marriage.”

Maria explained that taken together, “these proposals amount to a radical change in how we conceive of the family, they devalue women and mothers – and consequently children, and amount to an attack on domesticity itself.”

She said that the proposals “deserve to fail” and that the current provisions, “far from being outdated or anachronistic…represent a positive vision for society, that we and our leaders would do well to heed.”

The full text of her talk is below. (You can listen to it here).

The referendums on motherhood and the family

A talk by Maria Steen


In about six weeks, the people will be asked to vote on two substantial changes to our Constitution. Even if you did not know the subject matter, there would be clues suggesting that scepticism is warranted. Anything on which the political parties agree is highly unlikely to be good.

As it happens, it is not good. In fact, it is quite bad. Indeed, it is even worse than I first thought.

The first proposal is to get rid of what is misleadingly referred to as the “woman’s place is in the home” provision of the Constitution. (There is no such provision.) The second seeks to transform the concept of the family so that it is no longer founded on marriage.

Together, these proposals amount to a radical change in how we conceive of the family, they devalue women and mothers – and consequently children, and amount to an attack on domesticity itself.

In this talk, I will set out the proposals and will suggest that they deserve to fail. In doing so, I will defend the timeless values enshrined in constitutional provisions as they currently stand, and contend that, far from being outdated or anachronistic, they represent a positive vision for society, that we and our leaders would do well to heed.

The current text and the proposals in outline

Although the government is proposing two distinct amendments to the Constitution, they are intimately linked, as they would be carrying out major surgery to articles that are currently intertwined. Let us therefore begin by considering what the Constitution says now, and what the government would have it say.

Article 41 is entitled “The Family”. It begins in section 1.1 by saying:

“1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”

This is a recognition that the Family is a natural institution. It is not a social construct, still less a legal one. It is utterly primeval, and intrinsic to the nature of mankind. The Constitution acknowledges that it is the Family – not the individual – that is the basic element of any stable human society. Because of this, and because of its pre-legal origins, the Family must enjoy rights that cannot be fully described, and which cannot be given away. These rights rank higher than mere human laws. Any attempt to infringe upon them would be contrary to nature and reason.

Article 41.1.2 develops these themes by committing the State to the protection of the Family “in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State”.

Article 41.3 makes it explicit that the Family, as that term is used in these provisions of the Constitution, is founded on the institution of Marriage. The State pledges itself to guard with special care and to protect that institution against attack.

In outline, the first proposal is to alter the text so that the Family is no longer to be founded on Marriage, but rather “on marriage or other durable relationships”.

Article 41.2 comes between the two provisions I have just mentioned. It states:

“1° 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.

2° The State shall, therefore, 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.”

Four remarks may immediately be made. The first is that this provision does not state that a woman’s place is in the home. Rather, it recognises the value of her domestic life. The second is that the provision is centred on a place – the home. The third is that the second paragraph refers to mothers, not women generally. The fourth is that the vision it presents is of a society in which mothers who wish to do so should be truly free to stay at home with their families. The choice should not be taken from them by economic need.

What is proposed is that the two paragraphs in Article 41.2 will be deleted in their entirety, and replaced with a new provision, Article 42B. This will appear after Article 42A, which was inserted by the so-called “children’s rights” referendum. It would say:

“The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved and shall strive to support such provision.”

We can see immediately that, unlike the current provisions, this uses the term “family”, and will therefore be affected by the proposed redefinition of that term. Second, the reference to “home” is gone. Third, the value of woman’s “life within the home” is replaced with the concept of “care”, which may be given anywhere and by anyone who comes within the broader meaning of family founded on “durable relationships”.

So, now that we see the nature of the proposals, why should they be rejected?

Redefinition of the family

Let us first look at the proposal to alter the definition of the family.

As things stand, the family in Ireland is based on marriage. This has been the case since the foundation of the State. In order to explain why, it is worth returning to first principles.

Why is society organised around marriage? Is marriage merely a social construct? Is it an invention of the patriarchy to control women’s sexuality? No. Marriage is a natural institution, not a social construct. Critics of Article 41 claim that it is based on Catholic social teaching, so it is worth noting what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.

In other words, the Church – which offers marriage as a sacrament to its members – says that before the existence of marriage as a sacrament it was a natural institution.

Marriage is, by definition, a sexual relationship. And the nature of man and woman is directed towards sexual union with each other: it is written into the design of our bodies. It is not something that is learned by conditioning or constructed by society, we see it in all mammals.

Of course, there is much more to a marriage than the couple’s sexuality – but the sexual relationship between husband and wife is the evidence of their commitment to each other. Consummation is a necessary incident of marriage. The sexual nature of the relationship defines it. No other relationship is like it. The State takes an interest in it because of its natural tendency to bring forth new life – the citizens of tomorrow.

It is the trinitarian (rather than the nuclear) model of family – father, mother and child – that provides the building block for society. Anyone who has studied geometry knows that the triangle is the most stable geometric form; stability is key in a family. The reality is that it takes an awfully long time to raise a child. Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, human children are slow to mature, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and morally. What they need during that extended period of development (and scientists now say the brain doesn’t stop developing until about 25 years of age) is a stable and secure environment in which they can thrive. From an anthropological point of view, the child has a need for both parents, physically, emotionally, intellectually – and spiritually too.

While there are no absolute guarantees in life, parents who have entered into a public commitment in front of family and friends and neighbours – and in the case of religious people, before God – are more likely to stay the course. This is borne out by all statistics. The act of having to make a commitment before others – to say I belong to you and you belong to me for life – is designed to make one consider carefully what one is doing, and once done, to ensure that one sticks with it – even in these days. In other words, marriage – at least marriage as originally designed, and in fairness, how it is still conceived by most – is not contingent. It is a permanent state – till death do us part.

Is natural marriage a social construct then? Well yes, and no. No for the reasons just mentioned, and yes, because most societies see the obvious benefits of marriage to a society. Certainty, stability, people taking responsibility for their actions. Is it an attempt to control women’s sexuality? I must admit I always find this charge quite amusing. Throughout history, women haven’t had so much trouble controlling their own sexuality – even today women are still regarded as the gatekeepers of sex. Our biology ensures that we have an inbuilt caution about sex because of the obvious consequences. If marriage is a social construct and an attempt to control anybody, then it is an attempt to control men’s sexuality – to have them take responsibility for their actions, to curb their impulses and direct them towards a more constructive rather than destructive end, to give them an environment in which they can engage in a healthy sexual relationship while taking responsibility – and also, it should be said, providing fulfilment and a sense of purpose in life. We can see why a society might want to encourage it. Lone wolf males scouring the country in search of transactional, responsibility-free sex are a disaster for society.

But some will say that not all families are based on marriage. Some couples stay together for life and are committed to each other without being married. While there are many people living together who really feel a sense of commitment to each other, at the end of the day, they have not made any public commitment. Ultimately it is the lack of public and legal commitment that makes theirs a legally undefined and contingent relationship. The recent O’Meara case hints at the legal difficulties that such relationships present to the courts, precisely because of their lack of defined parameters. As the Chief Justice says:

“It is difficult to describe at what point, and by reference to what characteristics, should a non-marital family be recognised as an Article 41 family.”

Making a blanket statement that all non-marital family units are constitutional families leads to uncertainty and unpredictable consequences.

Many people deliberately eschew marriage, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to validate their commitment to one another. From the point of view of the State however – and that is what we are considering in the forthcoming referendum – the piece of paper is very important. It is the clearest evidence of real commitment. What else is the State to do? Should it interrogate cohabiting couples about the level of their commitment? That would be an affront to dignity and privacy.

The proposal seeks to address this problem by founding the family on either marriage or “other durable relationships”. But this is no solution.

Certainty is very important when it comes to legal definitions. Legal certainty allows us to predict the potential ramifications of any particular law. We know what marriage entails, and what it means. But what on earth is a durable relationship? Who are the parties to a durable relationship? Does it have to be a sexual relationship? If it is a durable sexual relationship, how on earth does that help the plight of single parents who are not in a sexual relationship? They are no better off under this new provision than the current one.

If it is to encapsulate single parent families (as some politicians are suggesting), can a durable relationship be between any two family members? What happens if an uncle or aunt is raising a child, or a grandparent? Are they not to be covered? Does the family have to have children in it? Cannot two cousins have a durable relationship? Arguably two cousins have a more durable relationship than two people in a romantic relationship, because they will always be cousins. Does a durable relationship have to be a relationship with blood ties? It would seem the obvious answer is no, as two married people are not related by blood. So just what is a durable relationship?

The answer is: we simply don’t know. On the face of it, it could be any and all of these things – and more. Any two (or three or more) people could declare they have a “durable” relationship. (Remember no official evidence is required). Presumably the courts would look for some evidence of a relationship, but again, this term is potentially so open-textured that it is hard to see what kind of relationship would be excluded. Distant cousins, friends, pen-pals – is a long-distance emotional relationship durable? If not, why not?

And so, after giving just a little thought to the matter, it becomes apparent that we cannot possibly foresee what type of relationships might be encapsulated by this term.

This matters because we are being asked to treat this amorphous and unpredictable grouping as the “natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society”.

The family founded on marriage – as a committed, lifelong, sexual relationship – is truly a natural, primary and fundamental unit group of society. From that trinitarian model we spoke of earlier, we see the primacy of such a unit through which new souls enter the world. For this reason, the sexual, intellectual, emotional and physical relationship between the spouses requires privacy and sanctuary from the State for the freedom of the spouses and their children. This is why the Constitution recognises it as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

But the question remains: should any or all other relationships have this recognition? How can distant cousins be said to be the natural primary and fundamental unit of society? How can three college friends who may or may not have a polyamorous relationship be said to be the same? Would that be a good thing? In declaring every relationship to have the same special status as marriage, the reality is that no relationship is special any more. In other words, marriage and the family are completely devalued.

As we know from the past few referenda, the mores of a people are influenced by the law. Legalising abortion has lead to a tragically massive increase in the number of abortions. Legalising divorce has lead to more divorce and fewer marriages.

When it comes to the law, what you honour, you get more of; what you denigrate, you get less of. Honouring the family based on marriage will lead to better outcomes. Changing its definition to say that family can mean anything you like, will have that effect.


Marriage is a good thing and it provides stability and security to the family: it is good for children, it is good for men, it is good for women, it is good for society. The data support that proposition, and if we want to follow the science, then we should support and promote marriage, and reject the attempt to redefine it.

 The erasure of women, mothers, and the home

Let us now look at the second proposal.

As we have seen, Article 41.2 is the provision that contains a recognition of woman’s life in the home. It also exhorts the State to support mothers who wish to remain at home to care for their families. It is proposed that the one reference to “woman” in the Constitution, two of the three references to “home”, and (after the abortion referendum) the only remaining reference to “mother”, are all to be erased.

If the current wording of the Constitution is influenced by Catholic social policy, then this proposal has its origins in feminist-Marxist ideology.

Labour Leader Ivana Bacik, has called Article 41.2 “an embarrassment” because it refers “to women as having a life within the home and mothers as having duties within the home”. She says uses sexist language and refers to “outdated gender stereotypes”. She references the marriage bar, claiming that “within our fundamental legal text, women and mothers remain embedded exclusively within the domestic sphere”.

I’d like to take these assertions one by one.

First, her claim that this provision is an “embarrassment” provides a clue to the ideology that informs her general world view. It is a classic feminist vision – and when I say that I mean a hardcore vision of human relations and the family à la Simone de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir, the renowned second-wave feminist, spoke in 1975 to Betty Friedan – another leading light in the feminist movement – of the need to destroy the “myth of the family and the myth of maternity and of the maternal instinct”. De Beauvoir said that women should not be offered the choice of staying home to raise children, “precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make [it]”. In short, women needed to be forced to do what feminists see as good for them.

When we look at Irish government policy over the last few decades, we can see that women have been strongly encouraged out of domesticity. So, for example, the advent of so-called tax “individualisation” was a major blow to single income families. Beforehand, the tax-free allowances and standard-rate band of a husband and wife were aggregated. This meant that the couple could take full advantage of all allowances available to each member, even if the income came from only one source. After individualisation, many such allowances go to waste, unless both spouses have income to utilise them. This created a major incentive for both spouses to work outside the home.

The National Women’s Council – which is anything but representative of Irish women, and instead just an elitist feminist talking shop, funded largely by the government – has done its bit in shaping government policy and with its influence in media circles has ensured most of the public conversations taking place around these issues centre on childcare, childcare, and more childcare. Oh, and the gender pay gap.

De Beauvoir’s vision of paid employment is constantly promoted as if it is the only thing that women want (with the subtext that children are a nuisance and a stumbling-block in every woman’s otherwise stellar career). Never, ever, do you hear them calling for freedom of choice for women for anything but abortion. There is to be no freedom of choice for women if it means they choose to stay at home to mind their children. Motherhood is a trap from which women need to be liberated. The erasure of ”woman” and “mother” from the Constitution is just a further step in the gender ideology wars.

Proponents of the amendment to the Constitution says that the current wording is “sexist” and “outdated” and doesn’t reflect the reality of women’s lives today. Yet, in order to bolster their claim that there is a gender pay gap, feminists, together with the National Women’s Council, have been relying on the fact that, in the vast majority of households, it is still women who take care of household management and the practical side of raising children. The ladies in the National Women’s Council and politicians like Bacik say that there needs to be more recognition and acknowledgment of women’s work carried out in their homes. And then they say: take that acknowledgment out of the Constitution!

It seems to me that, rather than being outdated and not reflecting reality, the opposite is true. Women do still provide an incalculable service to society through their work in the home. What really annoys the feminists is that so many women, given a choice, choose it freely.

While the feminists and women’s right’s campaigners say that the thoughts, priorities, and desires of women have changed since the coming into force of the Constitution, the reality is that the thoughts, priorities, and desires of babies have not changed at all. Most ordinary women recognise this. We know it when our babies look at us. We also know that their babyhood and childhood is incredibly short-lived. While it lasts, many women would like to have the opportunity to give their attention to their own babies and raise them, without feeling that they have to return to paid employment just to put bread on the table. According to OECD and CSO figures, over 40% of mothers of young children work full-time; the rest (roughly half and half) work either part time or are at home full-time. We have no idea how many would prefer to be at home more from official figures; the question isn’t asked. However the Iona Institute carried out a survey in 2016 that found that just 17% of mothers of dependent children wanted to work full-time outside the home. The following year, the Irish Independent carried out a survey on behalf of Sudocrem which found that only 6% of mothers wanted to work full-time outside the home. The thing is that even mothers who work full-time make adaptations to their careers to suit their home life better, for instance choosing a sector in their profession which is more 9-to-5 and doesn’t require them to work weekends. Men rarely do this. I know from experience, many who work either full time or part time outside the home would like to spend more time at home, particularly while their children are young.

Bacik also asserts that in the Constitution, “women and mothers remain embedded exclusively within the domestic sphere”. The claim that women are somehow oppressed by Article 41.2 is totally bogus. It simply does not stand up to scrutiny. This is evident in the lived reality of women’s lives and achievements outside the home: I need hardly remind you all that we have had two female Presidents, a female Chief Justice, a female Garda Commissioner, female ministers – the list goes on. It should be noted that while the word “woman” would be erased by the current proposal, the word “women” appears twice in the Constitution – both times in relation to women’s rights as workers.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasised that this interpretation of the Constitution is spurious. Rather, the provision is to be read as acknowledging the valuable work that a woman does for the sake of her family, which underpins the stability of society. In Sinnott v Minister for Education, Ms Justice Denham, the first female Chief Justice, wrote:

“Thus, in Ireland, in relation to the family and the home, women have a constitutionally recognised role which is acknowledged as being for the common good. This gives to women an acknowledged status in recognition not merely of the physical aspect of home making and family building, but of the emotional, social, physical, intellectual and spiritual work of women and mothers. The undefined and valuable role of the father was presumed and remained unenumerated by the drafters of the Constitution.

Article 41.2 does not assign women to a domestic role. Article 41.2 recognises the significant role played by wives and mothers in the home. This recognition and acknowledgement does not exclude women and mothers from other roles and activities. It is a recognition of the work performed by women in the home. The work is recognised because it has immense benefit for society.”

Article 41.2 places the imperative on the State – not on the woman – to organise society such that, should she wish to do so, a mother can stay at home to care for her family. There may be other reasons why a mother might want to work outside the home, and she is in no way precluded from doing so. The point is that it should be her choice and that she shouldn’t be robbed of it because she can’t afford to stay at home with her children.

What do we make of these competing visions? Do we not think it is a good thing that the State should try to support women who wish to stay at home to raise their own children? The answer from the National Women’s Council and other proponents of this change is clearly, “no”.

This isn’t really about righting any wrongs, as the politicians try slyly to suggest. Rather, it is about changing attitudes and behaviours. We all know this to be the case.

Despite decades of social conditioning to the contrary, women stubbornly remain more interested in the domestic sphere than men. It used to be said that a woman makes a house a home. How true that still is. Does this mean that households headed by men are not homes? Of course not. But the reality is that the majority of families are still headed by one man and one woman, and in the vast majority of cases it is the woman who takes the lead when it comes to running the house, making a home, and taking care of children and their needs.

How many husbands say to their wives: “you know, I think we need a few more pillow shams on the guest bed”? How many men know their children’s shoe sizes? Now maybe there are some men out there who say or know such things, but you understand the point I’m trying to make: they’re few and far between. (When I mentioned this to my own husband, he said: “What’s a pillow sham?”) The reality is that women are, always have been, and (I confidently predict) always will be, more interested in the finer details of domesticity than men. That is not to say that men don’t appreciate a nice home, or that they are not involved in the rearing of their children, but rather that given the choice, more men would choose to go out to work than stay at home, while more women – particularly those who are mothers of young children – would choose to spend more time at home.

Article 41.2 refers to mothers and their duties in the home. This does not suggest that fathers have no domestic duties. Rather, the provision is structured this way because the social policy it envisages should be ordered towards allowing mothers, in particular, to remain at home. Why? Because economic necessity is going to force someone to work outside the home, and the reality is that, generally speaking, it is mothers who sacrifice a lot more and are more vulnerable – through pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and “mothering” their children generally. This investment by mothers deserves special recognition and generous treatment by the State.

The proposal also replaces woman’s “life within the home” with anyone’s care, who knows where. The change from a specific location to none at all is significant.

It is in the home that the family has special authority and autonomy. The home defines the physical boundaries of the family’s area of control. It makes sure that every man’s home is his castle – in other words the family’s area of authority is protected from unjust intervention by the State. The home provides privacy and security, which are essential prerequisites to the proper flourishing of the family. As another judge, the then President of the High Court, Mr Justice Gavan Duffy, said in 1950:[1] “The cardinal position ascribed to the family by our fundamental law is profoundly significant; the home is the pivot of our plan of life.”

Home is the centre of every child’s universe. Every child needs a place to call home, in order to learn about the world in safety and security, before growing to an age at which he or she can go out into the world to meet it. But it is not just children who appreciate home – we all do. Home is the place to which we retreat when we are feeling vulnerable. It is the place where we can truly be ourselves. It is essential to the flourishing of the human person.

So, what are we to make of these competing visions for society? To my mind, this proposal does nothing for women. Rather, it erases them. It denies the differences between men and women, between mothers and fathers, between mothers and “carers”. It obliterates the name of “mother”, because it wants to deny the concept of mother as a distinct idea. Sex is irrelevant and “gender” is interchangeable. A mother is simply a parent who provides “care”. What an impoverished understanding of what a mother is. No warmth, no softness, no reference to the fierce, faithful love she has for her child. Instead, what replaces her all-encompassing love, which allows the tiny heart of her child to grow and flourish, is a sanitised, controlled functionary, who carries out tasks that are deemed to be “care”. What a thoroughly depressing view of life, of human relationships and of the family.


The present wording is clear: it refers to women who have children – mothers – and the care they provide for their families within the home. We know the parameters of what this means. Although every family is different, there is a universal understanding of what a mother does for her children, what she does to make a home. Making a home for the benefit of children, so that they can be raised in a secure and safe environment in which they are cherished and loved for who they are.

Take away the constitutional recognition of that setting, take away the constitutional recognition of the woman who – in the vast majority of households – makes and maintains that setting, and what happens? It undermines the family. It undermines the family’s security and stability and privacy and sends out a message: the kind of care that mothers provide in the home for the benefit of their families is just the same as any other kind of care. And to the extent that mothers choose to stay at home to minister to their families, they themselves are an embarrassment and outdated.


It can certainly be argued that successive governments have not made good on the promise implicit in Article 41.2, that they should create a society that supports a woman’s choice to spend more time at home with her family. However, the present referendum does provide an opportunity to us to let the political class know that we expect better from them and that they should honour women’s chosen role as home-maker and mother rather than attempting to impose their own vision on us. If you cherish the family founded on marriage as the true building block of society, if you hold in high esteem the domestic life and role of women and mothers, if you value the home and domesticity itself, if you believe that mothers should be supported in their choices to care for their own, if you reject the interchangeability of the sexes and sterile, ill-defined, and bloodless concepts such as “care” and “durable relationships”, then I urge you to use your vote to send a rebuke to our leaders. Please vote “no” to both proposals.

[1] Re Tilson, infants [1951] I.R. 1, p.15.