Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Sexism and Gender Inequality in Ireland.

Written in 2011 as an essay. 

I decided to pick this topic as the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day was just a few weeks ago. The weeklong event raised some important questions and proved that sexism is still a problem and quite prevalent in Irish and international society even in the year 2011.

All one has to do is to look at the heads of schools in UCD, the shafting of Joan Burton on the government panel and the recent threatening of rape as a joke by Gardai to see sexism is what holds women back. There are some obvious facts to point out in relation to gender inequality in Ireland today. It’s no secret that women are more likely to be accused of promiscuous behaviour, more chance of being a victim of sexual assault, less likely to enter political office (15% of TDs in Dail Eireann are women), more likely to fear walking home at night and it is very likely for women to be afraid to enter their own home.National Research by the National Crime Council found that 1 in 7 women have experienced severe abusive behaviour of a physical, sexual or emotional nature from a partner at some times in their lives. The survey estimates that 213,000 women in Ireland have been severely abused by a partner”. (Domestic Abuse of Women and Men in Ireland: Report on the National Study of Domestic Abuse, National Crime Council and ERSI, 2005).

Women earn less money than men even for doing the same job “

Women earn less money than men even for doing the same job “Today, women in full-time work continue to earn 22 percent less than men, while women working part-time will earn 36.6 percent less than men.” (S. Kennedy 2011).  Out of 2,000 of the world’s top companies only 29 (1.5%) of the CEOs are women but yet girls do better in the leaving cert and more women go to college. (H. Ibarra and M. T. Hansen; 2009).

But why are so few women in positions of power and influence in Irish society today? Besides just giving the common explanation that it’s all down to the fact that Ireland doesn’t have free and accessible childcare. In order to examine the history of women’s place in Irish society an exploration will be undertaken of, for example, how we went from having 3% of female representation in the Dail from 1922 to 1972 to 15% in 2011. It will also examine the effects of neo-liberal capitalism on gender inequality/equality.
To get a full picture of a Women’s place in Irish society it is necessary to look at our history and the changes that women have faced down through generations. Women have always played a very important biological role in society due to their reproductive capacity. Family sizes go in patterns and are not random therefore it can be argued that reproduction on some level is organised or that society has an influence on us in such a way, that we all have in and around the same number of children. How reproduction is organised reflects how production and the countries workforce in general in organised. There is never an unemployment crisis simply because there are too many people willing to work. This was apparent in Italy when Mussolini in the mid 1920s introduced a form of children’s allowance payment from the state to encourage people to have more children that will work for the state and fill the army.
The Irish Catholic Church always had a very important part to play in Irish family planning. The Church is inherently sexist and is a paternalistic institution in relation to gender inequality which is evident by the simple fact that women cannot become priests. The church was able to use its influence to put a ban on divorce, contraception and abortion but the church wasn’t always as powerful as it was in the early 20th century or even the late 19th century. “In 1793 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:1,587. In 1840 it was 1:3,023. There were very few church buildings” (G. Horgan. 2001). The Irish famine shock society as millions of people left and died and the church soon came to prominence in a new Ireland.
Feminist, Journalist and author Naomi Klein in her book ‘Shock Doctrine’ argues that big business men (yes mainly men) can avail of opportunities from broken economies and naturally devastated countries such as Haiti, by taking advantage of a bad situation to drive down wages and avail of a cheap pool of labour. This theory can be applied to Ireland and the Church in the post famine period. The Irish famine almost halved the population through death and emigration. seen as Ireland was mainly agricultural based there was a lot of land available. The people who were least affected by the famine, the wealthy large land owners made the most gains out of this land. Due to this the Irish middle class grew and more families were able to send their sons off to be priests. A devastated nation needed somewhere to turn to and a new large Irish Catholic Church was there to offer support.
The Church was quickly able to implement its ideals on society and women soon found themselves doing much less economic work and much more domestic work. The church was definitely growing to have a foothold in Irish society “by 1911 the ratio of priests to Catholics was 1:210” (G. Horgan. 2001). The Virgin Mother Mary came to become a model for how Irish women should behave.
The church didn’t just oppress women through sexual repression but by them saying what it still says in our constitution “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” and “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 (Bunreacht na h√Čireann; 1937).

They immediately give women a choice: marry and be a house wife or join the convent and be a nun for the rest of your life. Women are viewed by the state as default primary carers in society. The Irish state has a top down influence on society, so the problem is now the fact that masculinity is seen as being dominance and control and not care. Men should be viewed equally as carers and then masculinity can be viewed as something different.
 For the first time Irish women en mass went to join the nunnery or become a lay sister, 4.9% of women aged between 45 and 54 in 1926 were working or living in a convent (R.E Kennedy; 1973). It is also important to point out that because of the lack of opportunities given to women; there was a female emigration crisis.
Women’s sex lives were very dim in Ireland up until very recently. Because of the state clampdown on contraception women drew a straight line between sex and pregnancy rather than a line between sex and pleasure. This led to women fearing sex and also a level of sex inequality as wealthier women could afford to go abroad to buy condoms or have a diaphragm fitted.  This wasn’t just bad because women couldn’t experience sex the same way as men but also terrible because it meant child birth and that meant a life time of being a mother rather than a worker due to there being no state child care.

State sexism wasn’t just within the realm of denying child care, the right to work and contraception or abortion but also in the state supported-church approach to dealing with women who ‘break from the norm’ and do sinister things like have sex outside marriage. Women who dared do such a thing were essentially imprisoned in a Magdalen Laundry by the church with state support. In these holy places women who had a child outside marriage saw their child taken away from them and put up for adoption without their consent. Men generally accepted this treatment of their sisters and daughters as the church was so powerful. These institutions were no holiday camps; women were made work in them; cleaning linen for priests, farming and cooking for the nuns. Not one inmate was paid for their time in these homes. Sexual abuse was a regular feature of everyday life for a lot of women in these prisons. The church locked up women, sold their babies and essentially forced them into slavery. The last Magdalen Laundry closed in 1984.
Generally a women’s way of liberating themselves from this kind of oppression in Ireland was to leave the country and go somewhere where women were more respected. There are plenty of examples of women rising up and fighting back throughout Irish history whether its women like Countess Markievicz in the Easter Rising of 1916 (also first female British MP), or the women of the Irish Women Workers Union fighting against Sean Lemass’ sexist Conditions of Employment Act (which prohibited the employment of women in industry) in 1935.
With the introduction of free education more young girls than ever before were able to attend school. “Between 1971 and 1981 the number of young girls at secondary school increased by over 100% and the number at third level by 180 %”( G. Horgan 2001). Things were changing drastically for women in Ireland. By the 1980s the Women’s Liberation Movement had achieved four out of the six of their main demands which were 1) Equal rights in Law, 2) Justice for widows, deserted wives and single mothers, 3) Equal education opportunities and 4) One family, one house.
However by the dawning of the Celtic Tiger also came a much more liberal attitude to sexual issues “a survey in 1997 found that 21 to 24 year olds had, on average had 13 different sexual partners” ( G. Horgan 2001). In December 1990 we elected our first women president; Mary Robinson. Women in the workplace seemed to find themselves in higher positions than ever before, such as accountants, Human resource managers, doctors, lawyers etc..
While liberated sexual lives, more gender equality and more women independently climbing the social ladder is fantastic there is also an obvious drawback to women’s lives in ‘New Ireland’. The Catholic Church is nowhere near as strong or as powerful as it used to be (mainly to do with the sex abuse and reformatory school scandals) so the old kind of blatant church-influenced state sexism has been replaced with a new kind of sexism. Lap dancing clubs have sprung up all over Dublin; the Sun Newspaper features a topless ‘page 3 girl’, there is many Irish internet pornography companies with Dublin alone having 3,000 registered porn sites (not willing to search this online, heard it on the radio), more women are effectively being ‘used’ in advertising to sell products, rape and domestic violence incidents are on the rise. Also the consumer driven sexism that exists and is cheered on by programs such as ‘Sex and the City’ which advocates having coffee mornings, using men for money and buying things as a way of liberating yourself. Even on UCD campus we have societies advertising events like “Rappers and Slappers” or “Stockbrokers and Secretaries”. This new sexism reinforces and copper fastens the gender inequality that exists in Irish society.
Ireland has changed drastically from a country that locks up women for having sex before marriage to one of commonplace teenage sex, contraception, divorce, open homosexuality, single parent families and a female president. So yes, there have been substantial advances in gender equality and women are getting to positions of power and influence in Irish society yet women still haven’t climbed to the same positions of privilege and power as men.
There needs to be a modern equivalent of the Irish Women Workers Union or the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement to combat this new misogynistic sexism and also combat the recent attacks on single mothers in budget after budget and women (and men) workers. This is important in the battle against neo-liberal capitalism that uses sex to sell and keeps women from advancing to higher positions. After all International Women’s day began with a strike in 1911.

1 comment:

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