Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: Women can take pride in their immaculate homes without compromising their feminism

Social change: the ‘women in the home’ clause in the Irish Constitution is up for deletion
Social change: the ‘women in the home’ clause in the Irish Constitution is up for deletion
Senator Alice Mary Higgins

By Mary Kenny

Perhaps unwisely, I have agreed to host a French teenager on a cultural exchange arrangement during the month of August. This has occasioned me to examine the state of my household and my general domestic skills, which are not exemplary.

We often learn what others think of us by a casual comment. A few years ago, a neighbour brought me a gift of an artistic artificial flower. "I didn't bring a real plant," she said. "I know you'd never look after it." My reputation as a slapdash housewife goes before me. I'm not, by inclination, a fastidious homemaker.

Which brings me to that aspect of the Irish Constitution known as the 'women in the home' clause, soon up for deletion. Article 41.2 affirms that: "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."

I am neither for nor against this proposition, but just pondering it has made me realise that most women I've encountered care quite a lot about the maintenance and adornment of their homes. Some can spend hours discussing the refurbishment of a kitchen or the redesign of a bathroom.

This domesticity applies to some of the most ardent feminists I've known. My late friend June Levine, who was a fiercely committed feminist, maintained one of the most tasteful homes I've ever been in, and cooked and presented meals worthy of Escoffier.

And I could replicate that with many other examples of right-on feminists who lavished attention on their homes, and their life within the home, too.

So what's the big deal about removing this clause, which praises - albeit in archaic terms - the role of women in the home? If most women care about life within their homes, what's so offensive about suggesting that a nation should be damned grateful to those women who contribute to the common good by their unpaid labours?

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Yes, I get it that language about home life shouldn't be patronising, and I certainly get it that women shouldn't be confined to their homes - I'm the one who can't be bothered to stay home long enough to water a plant, according to neighbourhood reputation. And there's a bossy little coda to Article 41, which states, almost with pursed lips, that: "The State shall... 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." There's a tsk-tsk there.

However, all written constitutions seem outdated within a generation. I don't suppose any constitution would, today, start with: "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority... (Probably be the next to be zapped)."

Yet constitutions framed in the past can help us to understand the past. Women in the 1930s thought it a step up in the world if they married a man who could actually support a family so they weren't, indeed, forced to go out to work.

In 1945, the British government ran a campaign to get married women back into the workforce - according to Clair Wills' meticulous academic research - but women just wanted a period of domestication.

So London recruited immigrants from the West Indies for the workforce. Agricultural societies especially understood that the woman in the home made a huge contribution to the family economy: bachelor farmers were always at a disadvantage.

Appreciating women's input wasn't necessarily disparaging. Some women did object to Article 41 in 1937: the Graduate Women group thought it confining and reactionary. But they were a cluster of university ladies who probably had household maids (like most middle-class people at the time).

There seems to be a general consensus today that the wording of this clause must go - it's too archaic. But if the letter of the law is to be rebuffed, maybe the spirit can be preserved.

Senator Alice Mary Higgins says that it needs further "discussion" over whether a similar clause shouldn't recognise carers, who certainly do give to the State, and the community, vital support.

What's wrong with recognising the blatantly obvious fact that people - men as well as women - do maintain their homes and family life, and that this is of benefit to the general good?

If parents can't raise their children, they go into social care, which is a bad bargain for everyone - so why shouldn't the role that parents play be recognised? Why shouldn't those who care for others be acknowledged and even thanked?

Capitalist societies have a vested interest in getting everyone into paid work, so the invisible contribution of the homemaker doesn't count. In that sense, it is quite in keeping with contemporary thinking to delete the homemaker's role.

But sometimes reality bites: most women appreciate, and care for, their homes.

As someone who follows the Quentin Crisp method of housekeeping ("After four years, the dust doesn't get any worse"), I'm not in any competition to uphold the homemaker's role. Yet somehow I feel it's a little graceless to wipe out this valuable contribution to our common good.

Belfast Telegraph


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