How have women’s lives changed in a generation?
Posted on April 11, 2013
In 1970, Ireland was a very different country for women. A woman could not sit on a jury or keep her job in the public service when she got married. She could not buy contraceptives, refuse marital relations with her husband, live in a different place to him, get a barring order against him or divorce him. Just over a quarter of women had jobs outside the home and those that did could expect to earn about half as much as men.
The social and economic changes of the following three decades saw most of these inequalities overcome and by turn of the century, Irish women had, in legislative terms at least, almost as many options open to them as their male counterparts.
And yet, women’s participation in the labour force stands at 56%, well short of the EU target of 75% by 2020. Only 15% of TDs and a mere 5% of chief executives are women, while women in Ireland earn 14% less than men. So how far have we come in a generation and do Irish women really have that many more choices than their mothers had?
Eimear Fox (32) is a musician and a single mother to a 15 year old son. She sings with the band, Fox.E and the Good Hands, and teaches music to youth and community groups. Eimear is in a relationship with no plans to marry. In contrast, at the age of 32 in 1973, her mother Maire Crehan was a married mother of four, working as a nurse.
“It was the done thing to give up work when you got married”, says Maire. “But after I got married, I happened to be visiting in Holles St where I trained and they were desperate for staff and they asked me to go back. I was the only married woman on the staff.” She adds, “I don’t know how they got around that because the marriage ban was still in place.”
Maire married Anto at 22 and they are looking forward to celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. “I was dying to get married”, says Maire. “It was the only way you got a little bit of nookie at all!” Maire went on to have four children in the first five years of her marriage and then another three later on. “I never even thought about contraception”, she says. “My mother used to say ‘there’s ways and means around not getting pregnant’ but I was quite happy to be pregnant.”
Eimear’s life now differs hugely from Maire’s life in 1973. “She was very religious – they lived in a small rural community and they were very dependent on the church. Religion doesn’t really feature in my life at all.” There is a generation gap but Eimear feels her strong relationship with Maire has managed to bridge that. “I’m sure I’ve opened her eyes to a whole new way of being”, she says.
Maire sees the difference in the amount of freedom that Eimear has in her life. “Eimear can do anything she wants. She just has the one child so she’s not tied to the house. She has her boyfriend and there’s no question of them getting married. In my day, that would have been completely frowned upon, you just didn’t do it.”
Maire worked as a nurse until last year, when she was 70. “I had to give up working for the HSE at 65. I was a fit, able-bodied woman, working harder than any of them but I had to give it up. So I joined an agency and I was back working in the same place the week after and they had to pay me more.”
She is now studying psychology at university in Maynooth. “I absolutely love it. The kids in the class are way, way younger than me but it doesn’t seem to matter, I fit right in.”
“It’s a completely different life now”, says Maire. “But I loved life when I was 32. I loved the babies. I never thought about it, you just got on with life, you didn’t analyse it at all.”
At 40, Shirley Murphy is a stay-at-home-mum to two children. Shirley’s mother, Bridie, who was 40 in 1977, also stayed at home and had three children at that stage and another the following year. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference in our lives to be honest”, says Shirley, “because she had a nice house, she had all the mod cons.” She adds, “She had a dishwasher in 1977 – I don’t even have one now!”
Bridie gave up work when she was pregnant with her first child, as was the norm at the time. “Not many of my contemporaries worked”, she says. “Some did get part-time work but not many stayed in their pre-marriage jobs.”
Shirley returned to work on a three day week after her first maternity leave. But after six months, her boss gave her an ultimatum: full-time work or none at all. Shirley decided to quit. “Most women don’t have a choice”, she says. “Either they have no choice but to work for financial reasons or they want to work but can’t because of the price of childcare and because employers are so inflexible.”
Bridie did work part-time whilst bringing up her children – as an “unpaid secretary” to her husband, broadcaster and author Peter Murphy, and she also set up a business with a friend selling freezer packaging. “Deep freezing was just coming in and people were buying big freezers and filling them up. We set up a postal service and we also did demonstrations around the country.”
Shirley feels that the big difference now is the amount of contact with neighbours. “There was a lot more of a community then. We would have been out on the street playing all the time and we all went to the local school. Now, the kids on our road are going to three or four different schools and I don’t let them out to play on the street so I don’t know the neighbours very well.”
One other noticeable difference is found in the fact that both women have the same surname. “She thinks it’s really strange that I didn’t change my name”, says Shirley. “She insists on sending Christmas cards to Mr and Mrs ‘my husband’s name’.”
“She’s very definite about that!”, laughs Bridie. “It was automatic at that time to change your name and everybody called you Mrs – even people of your own age if they didn’t know you well.”
Cia Brannigan also changed her name when she got married at 20. By the age of 28, in 1991, she had two children and a mortgage. At 28, her daughter, Louise, has just the mortgage. “I can remember my mum’s 30th”, she says. “I remember thinking that it was really old and you must be really settled down to be 30. Now I’m pushing 30 myself and I still feel really young – it was a huge deal for myself and my partner to buy the house but we’re definitely not ready for the marriage and the children just yet.”
Cia and her husband, Tony, had wanted to live together before they got married but their parents wouldn’t allow it. “I think if we had have been allowed to live together, we would have planned things a lot better”, she says. “Everything is planned now and that’s where the big difference is.”
Louise works as a primary school teacher while Cia gave up her job as a hairdresser when she was pregnant with Louise. “Most of my friends stopped working when they had kids – I had plenty of company for a while”, she says. “I went back to college when I was 30 and retrained and that gave me a sense of pride in myself that I can do anything, that I’m not just a mother, that I’m a person as well.”
“I have a nice relationship with my kids, which is probably the thing I’m most proud of”, says Cia. Louise agrees. “We always got on well and as I grew up, I got much closer to my mum because we are so close in age.” Louise doesn’t think she will have the same friendship with her kids. “It will be a different type of relationship because I’m going to be much older than they are.” Louise adds, “Being so close to my mum has made my relationships with other people better too.”
In many ways, the lives of Irish women have changed immeasurably in just one generation. And yet women are still the ones that are responsible for childrearing and penalised accordingly. Women still have to justify their reproductive choices and that’s when they have choices – there is still no access to abortion, funding for fertility treatment or legislation covering either issue. Let’s hope these battles are not ones we have to pass on to the next generation.
By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Herald, 3rd of April 2013.