A paper presented by Mary Foley to the Annual General Meeting of Leixlip History Club at Leixlip Library on Thursday, 24th November, 2011

From the middle of the 18th century, Irish women were active in the affairs of the nation – educating girls, running hospitals and orphanages and managing large institutions.  Admittedly they were nuns but nevertheless they provided a valuable service with large financial commitments.

On the home front Irish women handled the practical affairs of shop-keeping and farming in the changed economic times after the famine.

Property was essential in the evolution of women’s political identity – single women and widows had full legal rights but married women were dependent on their husbands and the State.  From the middle of the 19th century women were lobbying parliament in an attempt to alter the property laws which evolved into campaigns for their right to make political claims which formed the basis for their right to vote.

In 1896 the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association was founded.  By 1898 women could sit and vote at district council level but it wasn’t until 1911 that they could become County Councillors.  Women over 30 were entitled to vote after 1918 and by 1922 this was reduced to 21 in line with men.

In the 1920s there was much disillusionment with the ethos of the new free state which was sexist and paternalistic, reflected in legislation that restricted the work women could perform, forced them to give up jobs in the public service once married and outlawed the importation and sale of contraceptives.  That ethos was underlined in the 1937 Constitution which asserted that a woman’s place was in the home.

Many women during the lean 1930s, 40s and 50s, particularly those in poorer districts, were enduring appalling housing conditions, struggling with the cost of living and high rates of infant and maternal mortality.  Most women saw their domestic responsibilities as of paramount importance.

But other women, especially those with access to education, began questioning the roles prescribed for them in the patriarchal Irish state.

Until the passing of the Succession act in 1965, women were not entitled to an automatic share of the land if their husbands died; a man could leave his estate to a male relative, making no provision for his widow.  The Succession Act entitled the widow to at least one third of the estate.

Change WAS in the air.  Small groups of woman journalists and political activists held meetings in cafés and flats in Dublin and in 1970 founded the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.  They appeared on the Late Late show on 6th March 1971 and produced their booklet called “Chains or Change” containing their five demands:

1. Equal pay
2. Equality before the law
3. Equal education
4. Contraception
5. Justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows

They succeeded in bringing to the fore issues that had been considered private and taboo and they played a crucial role in informing and politicising a generation of women who achieved much in terms of changing attitudes and the law.

In their determination to secure legal contraception, members protested against Archbishop McQuaid's letter on the subject by walking out of Mass. They journeyed to Belfast and publicly displayed illegally imported contraceptives at Connolly Station in Dublin. They held large meetings and organised pickets, marches and demonstrations.

It is difficult to say what effect they had on legislation but they certainly succeeded in being reported widely in the media and in raising consciousness. They shocked Irish women into an awareness of their disadvantages and challenged them to demand change.

In 1969 Jack Lynch announced the establishment of a Commission on the Status of Women and its report in 1972 contained 49 recommendations of which 17 related to equal pay and women’s working conditions.  In March 1976 the European Commission made its directive on equal pay binding on the Irish government which had requested to be exempt from its provisions.  This is a reminder that Ireland’s entry to the EEC in 1973 was of profound significance for the advancement of women.

Also in the 1970s the CSW, the Employment Equality Agency and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre were set up.  In 1973 the government ended the marriage bar under which women in the public service had to leave their jobs when they got married.

In 1979 Máire Geoghegan Quinn was the first woman to be appointed to the Cabinet since Countess Markievicz in 1919 and Mella Carroll was appointed a High Court Judge in 1980.

But in terms of women being represented at political level and promoted to senior professional positions, there remained a mountain to climb.

In the late 1970s women held only 7% of senior positions in the civil service and local authorities, only 2 of 43 district court judges were women; there were no female judges in the High Court or supreme Court; only 5 women out of 148 TDs and 32 out of 795 members of county and borough councils.

Why were all these women fighting for equality?  Because

  • Men dominated all our public institutions, our cultural, social, economic and legal infrastructure
  • Gender is a basic structuring principle of the labour market placing women in a disadvantaged economic position
  • Women were absent from formal politics and local government decision making structures.

It was in this heady atmosphere that the germ of an idea for Leixilp Women’s Studies was sewn.

Leixlip Women’s Studies first official term ran from September to December 1984 but the idea for the group had been growing in the minds of several women for many years prior to that.

From about 1981 an evening Readers’ Group had been meeting and had developed a method of studying literature by planning their reading lists, sharing books and in general learning as a group from each other.
From about 1983 a Women’s Group was also in existence discussing a wide range of issues and pursuing the objective of collective learning by researching chosen topics and sharing ideas and opinions.

As these women continued to meet in one another’s homes, they saw the need for women to come together to react to the sense of alienation, powerlessness and isolation which seemed to characterise modern urban life.  One way to combat this situation they felt was through learning together and sharing their experiences in an atmosphere free of intimidation.

The knowledge and confidence gained from these two groups encouraged them – Brid Spain, Pamela Hall, Marian Nicholl and others – to form Leixlip Women’s Studies.  They began in September 1984 with two broad aims:

1. To provide day-time classes for women with crèche facilities
2. To use their own resources as far as possible

Their reasons for self-direction were:

1. They believed that women have within themselves, a wealth of knowledge and a capacity for sharing it
2. They wanted their ideas to come from within and not be imposed
3. On a practical level, costs would be greatly reduced

Leixlip Women’s Studies was the first, self-funded, independent, women’s education group with a crèche in Ireland.

Up till then the pattern of adult education was similar to many other developing areas.  On the completion of the community school, a range of classes was provided by the VEC but only in the evenings.  Leixlip Women’s Studies was to be different.  It was to be woman centred, catering solely for the needs of women, providing courses that would broaden women’s horizons beyond their traditional home-based roles while at the same time highlighting the importance of the woman’s job.  The desire was that the women would acquire the skills to interpret, re-define and apply the changes affecting their lives, those of their families and the wider community, to their own situation.  It was important that the classes would be relevant and adaptable and would cater for the needs of the women of Leixlip, especially those who had been housebound with young families.  With these women in mind, it was deemed that the provision of a crèche was one of the most important requirements.

A two-roomed prefab was rented from the parish, adjacent to the Irish school, and a social evening was organised to raise some funds for advertising and to publicise the forthcoming classes.

Leixlip Women’s Studies was up and running with two courses – Creative Writing with Mai Hearne from the Irish Farmers’ Journal and History which was self-directed with the emphasis on re-examining the role of women in Irish history during the period from 1890 to 1937 and the contribution they made to shaping our nation.

There were 15 women in the Creative Writing Class and most of them gained the confidence to submit articles to magazines, journals and literary festivals.

In May 1985, not long after starting, an open morning was held and over 40 women arrived.  The purpose of the meeting was to report on progress so far and to invite ideas and suggestions for classes for the autumn.  The emphasis continued to be on allowing the women to have control over planning the courses and to share in the work involved.  Lots of ideas came from the morning and that September eight courses were provided – Creative Writing 1 (Mai Hearne), History (Self Directed), Art (Caitriona Moore), Arts Appreciation (Siobhan Ni Fhoghlu), Conversational Irish (Siobhan Ni Fhoghlu), Beginners’ Irish (Caitlin Ni Chearbhaill) Journalism (Brian Byrne) and Women’s Studies (4 committee members Brid Spain, Angela Fawcett, Pamela Hall & myself).

A room was rented from Scoil Ui Dhalaigh so that 2 classes could operate at the same time with the crèche using the other room in the pre-fab but when we lost the Irish school room in September 1986, we operated a double shift system with the first class from 10.15 to 11.45 and the second class from 12.00 to 1.30.

During these early important years, two of the most valuable women involved with the group were Mary Bridgemen and Noeleen McAssey who ran the crèche.

In the spring of 1986 it was becoming evident that the co-operative concept of the group was not working due possibly to the large number of members and lack of commitment to organisational matters of many of them, and a steering committee was chosen by the members at a general meeting.  This committee comprised Colette Nolan, Bernadette Sweeney, Kay Healy, Angela Fawcett, Caitriona Moore and I.  We were to look after the day to day running of the classes while remaining answerable to the wider group by ensuring that a general meeting was held every term where members could air their views and express their preferences for courses.

The group was self-financing by and large.  A small grant was received from Nuala Fennell TD, then Minister for Women’s Affairs in Garrett Fitzgerald’s government from 1982 to 1987.  Noel Dalton, Adult Education Officer with Kildare VEC was also supportive of the group giving grants of around £100 to £150 on several occasions.  A number of grants were also received from various agencies for the funding of special projects such as the celebration of International Women’s Day (Council for the Status of Women), the running of a Leadership Skills Course (Allen Lane Foundation), the provision of a lecture series on women’s health (Combat Poverty Agency) and the running of a Redwood Assertiveness Course (Allen Lane Foundation).

The course fees were determined by the cumulative cost of tutors’ fees, rent, crèche insurance, crèche wages, divided by the number of members like to partake and generally worked out less than the cost of courses in the community school.  The crèche always ran at a loss because the cost to mothers was always kept low.  In order to supplement the crèche income, many fund raising events were held varying form table quizzes, cake sales, raffles and sales of work.

The courses run by LWS from 1985 were many and varied but were always chosen by the women themselves based on their recognised needs at the time.  It was always a basic principle of the group that the tutor chosen would reflect the feminist ideals of the members and they were nearly always successful in this regard.

Courses over the years, apart from those mentioned earlier, included Drama, Communications, Self Defence, Yoga, French, Personal Development, Sociology, English, Psychology, Leadership Skills, Chakras, Assertiveness, Social Studies Diploma (Extra mural NUIM).

A further development was the emergence of members themselves as facilitators.  This grew mainly from the women’s interest in what they were studying and a desire to explore a particular topic further with a view to sharing their new knowledge with their fellow learners.

LWS also decided to hold night time talks on topics of interest to women in an effort to reach more women and to cater for those who could not come to classes during the day.  These talks were held in either Leixlip Branch Library or Scoil San Carlo.  Issues covered included “Nuclear Power: A Woman’s Issue?” speakers Dr. Tom Cotter and Anna Heusaff; a workshop on Education for Women, speaker Emer Dolphin; “Women and Health”, speaker Margaret Daly Kavanagh; ”Mind and Body”, speakers Linda Southgate and Geraldine Connolly; an art exhibition and talk by Margaret Tuffy; Child Sexual Abuse, Rape Crisis centre; Menopause, Ann Curley IFPA; Mental Health, Dr. Lelia Ryan, St. Lomans; Addictive Substances, Barbara Murphy, Rutland Centre; Contraception, Anne Mangan, Well Woman Centre; Making Decisions, Pauline Beegan; Understanding our bodies, Anne Conway; Complementary Health Therapies, Anne Conway.

LWS was not alone in their endeavours in the 1980s and they reached out to other groups in similar situations both to share their own experiences and to learn from them.  These included writers groups from Finglas and Kilkenny and the Moat Club in Naas; Celbridge Adult Education Group and Maynooth Adult Education Group, women’s groups in Clondalkin and Kilbarrack.  Woman’s Way also did a feature on LWS and an education programme on RTE Radio used LWS as an example of women embarking on a new learning project.

Members also attended conferences organised by various bodies such as Council for Status of Women, Women’s Studies Association, Aontas and Women in Learning and lobbied government on various issues to strive for an improvement in the status of women in our society.

By 1990 a lot of the original core group of women had returned to paid employment outside the home due possibly in no small way to the confidence gained within the group.  Around this time also, a women’s support group emerged from the main group which is still in existence and meets in the evenings about once a month.  For a little while it met in the Toll House before it was purchased by John Colgan.

LWS continues today. It meets in a prefab in Scoil San Carlo and its main emphasis is on mental health issues and suicide prevention.  During the early 1990s it changed its ethos and allowed men to join.  It also saw a need to provide classes in English for the large number of foreigners who came to live in Leixlip at that time.  The point I am making is that it evolved over the years to cater for a perceived need at the time.

In my experience and during my time with the group, LWS succeeded in encouraging many women in Leixlip to become more involved in their own education and advancement by using the group to provide a bonding and solidarity.  Through patience and staying power I believe we kept the vision of empowerment and equality alive and it stood to us in our personal lives and made us who we are today.

LWS – were they needed at all?  YES, YES, YES and they continue to be needed.  Women’s work in the home still has no economic value.  Women who work outside the home find it hard to juggle their roles as earners and mothers.  Not until family friendly workplaces are demanded by both mothers AND fathers will we achieve true equality.

I was going to end my talk here but I decided to have a look at the current situation regarding female political representation.

  • Since the first Dail in 1918, 92 women have been elected to Dáil Eireann, Constance Markievicz being the first ever. 
  • Numbers rose and fell until they exceeded 10 for the first time in 1981. 
  • Rising since to an all-time high of 25 this year.
  • Fianna Fáil has no female members while Fine Gael doubled its number from 5 to 11
  • Ireland lies in 74th position internationally;  and is 20th out of the 27 EU members.
  • Just 15% of the candidates were women – 86 out of 566.  Ironically, they enjoyed the same success rate as men at 29%.
  • The 4 reasons mooted for the lack of women running for public office are – care, culture, cash and confidence.
  • Care - over the course of a week, women spend on average a fifth of their day engaged in care and household work, three times as much as men do.
  • Cash -women's annual income is around 70 per cent of that of men.
  • Confidence - is noted by many women as an impediment to their access to politics.
  • Culture -  we're trapped in a cultural mindset where we expect our politicians to be male.
  • Party candidate selection procedures act as a barrier against the selection of women candidates. Party activists will tend to favour the 'tried and tested' male incumbent candidate.
  • Women make up less than 20% of the representation on local authorities. Representation on VECs is at a ratio of 2:1 in favour of men.
  • Half a million women were working in the home in 2010 compared to just 7,500 men.

Should no reform occur naturally within the political system to rectify what has become an embarrassing gender imbalance in Irish politics, the call for statutory and mandatory actions will become louder.  Even if the number of candidates increases, should at least 40-50 female TDs not work in Dail Eireann by 2016, the hand of the political system may have to be forced; perhaps by Europe.