By Margaret Hickey
At a recent conference in Trinity College titled ‘Working for the Home: Past and Present’, Senator Ivana Bacik bemoaned the fact that the government appears in no hurry to have a referendum on one of the most era defining aspirations of the 1937 Constitution which was that ‘the State recognizes that by her life in the home, the mother gives the State support without which the common good could not achieved.’ It was considered a bad thing back then, and not just in Ireland, if both parents had to work all day due to economic necessity. The duties of care of the mother rippled outwards from the home to ageing and ailing parents, other dependent relatives and oftentimes needy neighbours. It was a way of life for most women that set the ‘common good’ above their individual self-development through work and education.
It was an era where the wife and mother was the heart of the home and the home the unrivalled centre of family life. It was a place of bustle and activity, cooking, cleaning, decorating, casual entertaining, a centre for spontaneous neighbourly catch-ups, informal counselling and unburdening. It was the place where small children or old people were looked after. The place where older children often came and left unsheperded. A lot could pivot around ‘the mother in the home.’ But even then there were exceptions to the norm.
At both ends of the socio-economic scale it was not unusual to find women whose domestic lives ran in tandem with work outside the home. Single mothers, whether widowed or abandoned, were forced to work as cleaners and cooks for better off families. At a time when most people married within the parish of at least one of the spouses, there were usually relatives around to take care of the children. Or if not, the children accompanied their mother to work or joined her there after school. The State did not hold her hand, despite the unctuous rhetoric of the Constitution. At the other end of the scale, more privileged women could work outside the home with relative ease because they could afford to pay other women ‘to do’ for them. Not that the world of work was open to them in the way it is now.
Up to 1973 in Ireland, married women were not permitted to work in the civil or public service. Marriage meant handing in your notice. However, there were some exceptions. Primary school teachers for instance could continue their working lives after marriage since 1958. That was a hard fought campaign by their union, The Irish National Teachers’ Organization (INTO). One of the key arguments they made for removing the marriage ban was that ‘married women are more suited to teaching children’. Interestingly, the case for equality was grounded in a gender based understanding of work.
The exclusion of married women from the public workforce had a socio-economic rationale and so cannot be dismissed entirely as sexism. In a time of economic struggle and widespread poverty, there was an argument in favour of ensuring every household had at least one income. The prevailing view was that women were naturally better suited to childcare and housekeeping than men.
Officially at least, that is no longer the prevailing view. Yet, one of the major issues for women today as they struggle to find a secure foothold in the working world is that the responsibilities of childcare and domesticity still fall disproportionately on them. The Trinity College conference heard that many women ‘do a double day’s work’. Men still haven’t adapted to playing their part competently in domestic life. Their recalcitrance can be seen as the legacy of generations of cultural conditioning or just plain recalcitrance because they can get away with it. By the same logic, women, in taking the lead in the domestic sphere, are also programmed by cultural conditioning. And so it is a vicious circle.
Well that is just theory and the facts can be interpreted otherwise. Better off women can ‘lean in’ and have it all or sort of have it all. Michelle Obama recently said that ‘having it all’ is a lie. Like other successful women at the top she could afford the kind of domestic and child help that largely bypassed the need to divvy up chores between spouses, Obama probably realises that it is other less advantaged women who pick up the pieces, literally and every other way, to enable their more privileged sisters to reach for the stars.
In egalitarian Sweden, where childcare is largely institutionalised, the job of taking care of other women’s children falls to women, many of them mothers themselves. According to a study undertaken by The International Labour Organization, Swedish women have the highest sick leave levels in the OECD, with women working in childcare having the highest levels of all. Hardly surprising. Minding small children can be stressful. Unremitting low level stress can be as wearing as intermittent high stress with time in between to regain equilibrium. And women who spend all day long in a creche minding other peoples’ children often come home late in the evening to the ‘busman’s holiday’ of caring for their own.
It is the same everywhere. Women are overwhelmingly the carers, at both ends of life’s spectrum and at every point in between. The issue of the exploitation of migrant, female care workers by working women here was raised at the Trinity conference. The case was made for properly funded, properly paid, State regulated childcare as a solution. But Sweden has all of that and there are still systemic problems. Besides, daycare doesn’t address all the challenges of the working couple. There is still the housework, the task of organising the children with a specified bag of supplies for their care centre, the cooking, the shopping, the challenge of sickness and the logistics of dropping off and collecting. It is a wearing, morale sapping life for women who don’t earn enough to pay for help with housework as well as childcare. Most women in other words.
Who speaks for the women who juggle and struggle? Are they still, according to a speaker at the Trinity conference, being ‘ forced into the role of motherhood by the State?’ There are many ‘ordinary’ working women who would say they are being forced into the world of work by the State. They would simply like to have a choice just as they wanted a choice in the early twentieth century. Back then it suited the economic imperatives,or the patriarchy if you prefer, to exclude women from the world of work. Now the economic imperatives run in the other direction. Big government needs to expand the economy and feed its bloated superstructure.
The patriarchy has morphed into a technocracy. There is a new, monetised understanding of ‘the common good’ to which all are expected to conform.