How Irish women failed to persuade Éamon de Valera to treat them as equal citizens

Status of women was better ‘under British rule’, activists told de Valera a year before he signed off on ‘women’s place in home’ clause in Constitution

Éamon de Valera was told a year before the 1937 Constitution that the status of women in Ireland had been better under the British Empire than in the independent state that followed.

An umbrella organisation, the Women’s Societies and Social Workers, repeatedly sought to meet de Valera to discuss the erosion of women’s rights in the Irish Free State.

The organisations it represented including the National Council for Women, the Legion of Mary, the Girl Guides, the Mothers Union, the Irish Matrons Association and the Irish Women Workers Union which represented 5,000 working Irish women at that time.

When de Valera eventually met them late in 1936, four years after coming to power, it did not go well. The delegation sought equal representation within the Seanad to address the lack of women TDs.


De Valera, who famously proclaimed that to divine the wishes of the Irish people he need only look into his heart, replied on this occasion to say “public opinion is against it”.

The document has surfaced in a new programme broadcast on RTÉ 1 called The Records Show which is presented by Katie Hannon. The two part series explores the thousands of records held in the National Archives.

The letter sent in October 1936 is scathing about the status of women in Irish society and particularly the marriage bar which was introduced in the 1920s. The marriage bar meant all women had to resign from the civil service once they got married.

The letter continues: “Under our own government the position of women in the State Service has gradually deteriorated from what it was under British rule.

“No woman may be retained after marriage in the civil service while in the case of the British civil service the chancellor has discretionary powers in this respect and exercises it not infrequently.

“Women have taken a large part in public life in Ireland within comparatively recent times. As the following facts show; Ireland was the first to elect a women MP in 1918 who was also made a Minister [Constance Markiewicz].

“In the second Dáil six women deputies were elected. Often women surpluses at elections got men elected [in this period]. Women were more frequently on public bodies, corporations, local councils, they were also judges.

“Women were sent abroad to the US, Britain on official business. Women should not be overlooked and unrepresented.”

The arguments failed to persuade de Valera who introduced the notorious Article 41.1 into the 1937 constitution, the so-called “a woman’s place is in the home” clause.

It states: “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.”

Almost 90 years later Article 41.1 has still not been repealed as the debate continues what to replace it with.

The marriage bar continued until 1973, long after it had disappeared in most European countries.

The Records Show continues on Sunday, October 22nd is on RTÉ One and on the RTÉ Player.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times