The impact of Ireland's marriage bar on the affected women's professional lives and careers is still felt to this day, writes Dr Jennifer Redmond, Department of History, with Judith Harford, UCD and Deirdre Foley, UCC
Reflective of international trends, the bar, incentivised through a marriage gratuity, was typically introduced in response to high unemployment rates, ensuring paid employment remained in male hands. In Ireland, the bar was the first of a series of restrictive measures adopted by successive governments to curtail women’s participation in public life and the public sector. The bar for civil servants was in practice in the Irish Free State from 1924.
The marriage bar and gratuity also aligned with Catholic social teaching, which recognised the primary role of women as that of wife and mother, located firmly within the home. This ideology was copper-fastened in Article 41 of the 1937 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. 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. The Citizens’ Assembly has recommended that Article 41.2 of the Constitution should be ‘deleted and replaced with language that is not gender specific’.
In 1932, the marriage bar was extended to primary school teachers who were also employed by the Government. Justification for this extension ranged from the alleged unfairness of two income households to the perceived impropriety of pregnant women teaching in the workplace. Arguments for the bar extended to hiring practices at second-level, even though teachers were largely privately employed up until the advent of the free education scheme in 1967. The talent and expertise lost through the marriage ban is staggering to contemplate.
Adherence to the marriage bar was at its strongest in middle-to-upper-class professions, where it was most likely that the male wage would provide for the entire family. In interviews with primary school teachers affected by the bar, we found that women rarely questioned the rationale behind the rule, believing it in some cases to be connected to the Constitution.
Some marvelled at how easily they accepted it at the time, but such were the predominant gender norms, values and stereotypes that this tacit acceptance was, on balance, unsurprising. Nuala Fennell, who married in 1958, recalled in her memoir that her middle-class in-laws ‘were rather unhappy that I was working; married women just did not work in the 1950s’.
Marriage bars rarely applied in factories or the service industry, signalling the reality that many women did contribute to the family income. However, social stigma was often directed at married working women for not making a 'good match', or securing a husband who could provide the entire family income.
Notwithstanding class differences, census returns indicate the overall confinement of women to domestic life for decades, whether through law or cultural acceptance of women’s proper place being within the home. From 1926 to 1961, the largest group of adult females were those ‘engaged in home duties’, peaking at 60% of all adult females in 1961. Only 9% of women recorded in the 1966 census as ‘gainfully employed’ were married. This is not to say that married women did not undertake casual work, such as cleaning and child-minding, paid in cash and therefore not officially recorded, but the dearth of records means we know less about their experiences.
The bar was eventually lifted in 1973 on the recommendation of the Commission on the Status of Women. Various women’s groups including the Irish Housewives Association, the Irish Countrywomen's Association and the Irish Women's Liberation Movement had campaigned for some time for its removal. Ultimately deemed illegal under European law, Ireland was one of the last countries to lift the ban.
Its end ushered in a new era of employment possibilities and pathways for women. Newspapers reported on new opportunities for married women in radiography, physiotherapy and a range of professions which had previously been governed by the bar. Reactions to the lifting of the bar were inevitably mixed, some predicting higher rates of unemployment for young people, others welcoming an end to the discrimination and loss of key talent. Furthermore, legislation introducing the concept of equal pay did not take effect until 1976, and marriage bars in the private sector were not fully outlawed until the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation in 1977.
The impact of the bar on women affected is still felt to this day. In the 1960s and 1970s, women in the civil service were increasingly re-hired on temporary contracts after being forced to retire on marriage, a practice highlighted by Mary Robinson at the time of the rescinding of the ban. This practice led to less favourable terms and conditions of employment, as well as diminished pension entitlements.
Presently in the Irish civil service, men ‘are twice as likely as women to occupy senior grades, even compared to women with the same level of qualifications and length of service’. Even in senior roles, a 2020 ESRI study found that women were more likely to be in public facing or service-oriented jobs and less likely to be in strategy or high level policy positions.
To what extent is this a legacy of the marriage bar which eliminated generations of female role models forced to retire upon marriage? On the anniversary of the rescinding of the bar, it is fitting to reflect on the legacy of a policy which served to ensure the social and economic subordination of women and ask have we fully remedied this inequity?
If you or someone you know was affected by the marriage ban and are interested in speaking with us, please contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm