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Idea that article 41.2 had no real-life consequences is rubbish. Just ask the Aer Lingus ‘girls’

What’s most extraordinary is that women themselves accepted that paid work was a male prerogative

In 1968, everything was groovy. Hey Jude and Jumpin’ Jack Flash were on the radio and 2001: A Space Odyssey was blowing everyone’s mind. Meanwhile in Ireland, Aer Lingus temporarily re-employed a young woman called Mrs Una Kennedy. The Mrs bit is important.

Una Barry had been a highly valued worker in the airline’s press office. Until she married David Kennedy, a young executive at Aer Lingus (and subsequently its CEO). This is when the trouble started.

Mrs Kennedy, as she now was, had to leave her permanent job simply because she was now a married woman. This was the rule in the public service and State companies. It arose from something we now have to confront again: the belief, enshrined in the Constitution of 1937, that the proper and meaningful life for a married woman was in her home.

Aer Lingus didn’t want to fire Una, so she was rehired on a day-to-day basis. Not week to week or month to month. Day to day. But other Aer Lingus workers were up in arms about even this concession. They insisted their union, the Workers’ Union of Ireland, should raise their angry protests with management.


Who were these sexist pigs who objected to Una’s temporary employment? Here’s where the story gets suitably psychedelic. They were the single women in the Aer Lingus office. According to the Evening Herald “The girls (sic – the patronising term was ubiquitous) in the administration staff have complained to their union . . . about what they term a breach of the ‘no married woman’ rule.”

The report continued: “‘We are most annoyed,’ said one girl. ‘The airline has always refused to employ married women, but seem to have made an exception in this case.’” Aer Lingus, in its defence, pointed out that “Girls are required to resign on marriage, but they are sometimes re-employed on a temporary basis. At the moment, 54 married girls are employed as air hostesses, typists and clerks. Following her recent marriage Miss Barry was offered and accepted a short-term appointment to work on some current public relations projects.”

So how was this crisis resolved? Miss Barry/Mrs Kennedy graciously walked away from her day-to-day job. As Aer Lingus announced: “On hearing that this arrangement had caused ill-feeling, Miss Barry asked to be released from her commitment. In the circumstances the company agreed. The company is grateful for the assistance she offered and deplores the embarrassment caused to her.”

Reading between the lines of contemporary reports, I suspect the reason the “girls” objected so strongly to Una Kennedy’s reappointment was that her husband was a senior manager and that they believed (wrongly) that she was being given special treatment. It is nonetheless telling that instead of challenging a misogynistic rule, they ended up demanding its enforcement – equal misogyny for all. The internalisation of oppression could hardly be more neatly expressed.

Article 41.2 gave blatant sexism a legal, patriotic and religious gloss. That gloss has long worn off and everyone should be able to see the misogyny that lies beneath

The reason I’m now recalling this little episode in the history of Irish sexism is because we are having referendums on March 8th to (among other things) remove the language of article 41.2 that “recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. As it happens, the father of that formula, Éamon de Valera, attended Una Barry’s wedding in June 1968 – the one that caused all the trouble.

Since the referendums were announced, I keep hearing and reading that this language in article 41.2 was always just aspirational and never had any real-life consequences. It wasn’t and it did. It is true, of course, that the article did not require a ban on married women in the workplace. But it gave constitutional support to the ideology that made that ban socially acceptable.

I am not reading the past through the lens of the present. Women were saying this loudly at the time. In an Irishwoman’s Diary in The Irish Times, the anonymous female writer mentioned Una Kennedy’s case and related it to “the bit of our egregious Bunreacht which maddens the women of Ireland” – article 41.2.

The veteran Belfast-based trade unionist and feminist Betty Sinclair also connected the Kennedy incident to the Constitution: “She should be entitled to the same right to work as any other person in the society, whether she’s married or not. This barrier against married women is one of the very difficult things the trade union movements will have to face. It is absolutely ludicrous and the Constitution will have to change.”

Article 41.2 was not a barrier to the gradual lifting of the marriage bar, but it was (and remains) a clear statement that the proper “life” of all adult females (hence the term “woman”) is domestic. As Yvonne Scannell put it, “It fails to recognise that a woman’s place is a woman’s choice.”

It’s not wrong to see article 41.2 as an exercise in Catholic virtue signalling. But signals matter. Women knew how to read them. At the time when Kennedy was being “embarrassed” into giving up her temporary job at Aer Lingus, just 6 per cent of married women in Ireland were officially in paid employment. Women who worked on farms but were not counted as being employed, yet the real figure was still no more than 15 per cent.

What’s extraordinary is that women themselves accepted that paid work was a male prerogative. In 1973, in an ESRI survey, only 15 per cent of Irish women approved unconditionally of married women working outside the home. As the authors of the study put it, “paid employment is generally regarded [by Irish women] as a potential threat to the correct discharge of the duties of mother and wife”.

This ideological conditioning had more to do with the church and broader patriarchal culture than with the Constitution. But article 41.2 validated and underpinned that ideology. It gave blatant sexism a legal, patriotic and religious gloss. That gloss has long worn off and everyone should be able to see the misogyny that lies beneath.