Feminism in the Republic of Ireland

Feminism in Ireland has played a major role in shaping the legal and social position of women in present-day Ireland. The role of women has been influenced by numerous legal changes in the second part of the 20th century, especially in the 1970s.

Background and women's suffrage

From 1918, with the rest of the United Kingdom, women in Ireland could vote at age 30 with property qualifications or in university constituencies, while men could vote at age 21 with no qualification. From separation in 1922, the Irish Free State gave equal voting rights to men and women. Promises of equal rights from the Proclamation were embraced in the Constitution in 1922, the year Irish women achieved full voting rights. However over the next ten years laws were introduced that eliminated women's rights from serving on juries, working after marriage, and working in industry. The 1937 Constitution and Prime Minister Eamon De Valera’s conservative leadership further stripped women of their previously granted rights.[1]

Women participated actively in the Easter Rising of 1916. Approximate 260 women took part in the insurrection, although until recently they were not mentioned in history books. In advance of the 2016 commemoration of the Rising, several historians have researched and worked to correct the omissions. A government-funded project allowed Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis to document the stories of 77 women who were jailed for participating in the uprising. They were typically activists who had fought for social justice and equality in a variety of ways: land reform, labor organizing and women’s suffrage. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, a voting rights activist, told audiences during a speaking tour in 1917 that "it is the only instance I know of in history when men fighting for freedom voluntarily included women." [1]

A major shift after the execution of rebel leaders in 1916 was that the Roman Catholic church finally backed the cause for independence. The church was the most powerful institution in the country and exercised its power to shape the constitution. The first Free State government supported a pluralist state, but Eamon de Valera, who was not a supporter of women's emancipation, together with the church, enshrined Catholic and socially conservative teachings. Contraception and divorce were illegal, and various laws were instituted to keep women at home and out of the workplace.[2]

Second wave feminism

Second-wave feminism in Ireland began in the 1970s, fronted by women such as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, June Levine and Nuala O'Faolain. At the time, the majority of women in Ireland were housewives.

In 1971, a group of Irish feminists (including June Levine, Mary Kenny, Nell McCafferty and other members of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement) travelled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the so-called "Contraceptive Train" and returned with condoms, which were then illegal in Ireland.

In 1973, a group of feminists, chaired by Hilda Tweedy of the Irish Housewives Association, set up the Council for the Status of Women, with the goal of gaining equality for women. It was an umbrella body for women's groups.[3] During the 1990s the council's activities included supporting projects funded by the European Social Fund, and running Women and Leadership Programmes and forums. In 1995, following a strategic review, it changed its name to the National Women's Council of Ireland.

Reproductive rights

In 1979, the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979 allowed the sale of contraceptives in Ireland, upon presentation of a prescription.

In 1983, an amendment was passed to the Irish Constitution which banned abortions on request.[4] Abortion on request remains illegal in Ireland, though abortions can be legally conducted if they occur as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the pregnant woman, and recently due to legislation, this risk to the woman's life also includes risk from suicide.[5] (See below events in 2012/2013).

In 1985, the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1985 allowed the sale of condoms and spermicides to people over 18 in Ireland without having to present a prescription.

In 1992, Attorney General v. X (the "X case"), [1992] IESC 1; [1992] 1 IR 1, was a landmark Irish Supreme Court case which established the right of Irish women to an abortion if a pregnant woman's life was at risk because of pregnancy, including the risk of suicide. However, Supreme Court Justice Hugh O'Flaherty, now retired, said in an interview with the Irish Times that the X Case was "peculiar to its own particular facts", since X miscarried and did not have an abortion, and this renders the case moot in Irish law.[6] (See below events in 2012/2013).

In 1993, the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1992 allowed the sale of contraceptives in Ireland without prescription.

In 2012 the death of Savita Halappanavar, four days after a complete miscarriage, on 28 October at University Hospital Galway in Ireland, led to nationwide protests—which spilled over into India, Britain and many other countries—calling for a review of the abortion laws in Ireland. Partly in response to the death of Savita Halappanavar,[7][8] the Irish government introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 (Irish: An tAcht um Chosaint na Beatha le linn Toirchis 2013. Having passed both Houses of the Oireachtas in July 2013, it was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland; it commenced on 1 January 2014.[9][10][11] The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 [12] Act No.35 of 2013;[12] previously Bill No.66 of 2013[13]) is an Act of the Oireachtas which defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. The Act gives effect in statutory law to the terms of the Constitution of Ireland as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the 1992 judgment Attorney General v. X (the "X case"). That judgment (see above events in 1992) allowed for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman's life, including through a risk of suicide. The provisions relating to suicide were the most contentious part of the bill. In 2013 Ireland's first legal abortion was carried out on a woman who had an unviable 18-week pregnancy and whose life was at risk.[14] However many medical terminations had previously been performed in Ireland, including those at the University Hospital when complications had arisen in pregnancy, as it was and remains Irish law to save the life of the mother, if physiological threats to that life arise.[15]


In 1990, Mary Robinson was elected as the first female President of Ireland. The second female president, Mary McAleese, was president between 1997 and 2011. In December 2008, Senator Ivana Bacik organised an event in Leinster House in which all the women elected to the Oireachtas over the years were honoured.[16]

Ninety-two women have been elected to Dáil Éireann, the first being Constance Markievicz in 1919. Directly prior to this, in 1918, she became the first woman elected to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, although in line with Sinn Féin abstentionist policy she did not take her seat. Following the Irish general election, 2011 and a re-shuffle in 2014, four women were appointed cabinet ministers (the highest number of women in senior ministerial positions ever in Ireland): Joan Burton, Frances Fitzgerald, Jan O'Sullivan and Heather Humphries.[17]

Marriage and divorce

Prior to the Family Home Protection Act, 1976, a husband could sell or mortgage the family home, without the consent or even knowledge of his wife. Other important legal changes made to the family law include the Domicile and Recognition of Foreign Divorces Act, 1986,[18] which abolished the dependent domicile of the wife; and the Family Law Act 1988, which abolished the legal action for restitution of conjugal rights.[19] Marital rape was outlawed in 1990.[20]

In 1996, Ireland repealed its constitutional prohibition of divorce; this was effected by the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1995, which approved by referendum on 24 November 1995 and signed into law on 17 June 1996.


The marriage bar was abolished in 1973,[21] and the Employment Equality Act, 1977 [22] prohibited most gender discrimination. The Employment Equality Act, 1998[23] further upholds gender equality.

Further reading


  1. 1 2 The Sisterhood of the Easter Rising March 16, 2016
  2. Why, 100 years after the Easter Rising, are Irish women still fighting? The Guardian, March 25, 2016
  3. NWCI History Archived June 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. IFPA calls for removal of 1983 amendment from the Constitution - Irish Family Planning Association. Ifpa.ie (2003-09-05). Retrieved on 2010-09-29.
  5. 30 July 2013 (2013-07-30). "Irish president passes abortion law". BelfastTelegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-05-19.
  6. Ruadhan Mac Cormaic (6 July 2013). "X Case judge says ruling is 'moot' in current abortion debate". Irish Times.
  7. "Savita Halappanavar effect". DNA India. 30 July 2013. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  8. "Ireland performs first legal abortion". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  9. "Commencement Order and Regulations for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013". Department of Health and Children. 20 December 2013. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  10. Brennan, Michael (2 January 2014). "Reilly criticised over abortion guidelines delay". Evening Herald. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
  11. "President Higgins signs abortion bill into law". Irish Independent. 30 July 2013. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  12. 1 2 "Legislation Signed by President Higgins: 2013". Office of the President. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  13. "Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 (Number 66 of 2013)". Bills 1992 - 2013. Oireachtas. Retrieved 12 July 2013.
  14. "Ireland performs first legal abortion". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  15. "A pregnant wife's tragic death, a global outcry and the question: Was she really killed by draconian abortion laws?". London: Daily Mail. 17 November 2012.
  16. Dáil Éireann - 90 Years of Parliamentary democracy. The Irish Times. Retrieved on 2010-09-29.
  17. "List of Ministers and Ministers of State". Department of the Taoiseach. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
  18. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1986/act/24/enacted/en/html
  19. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1988/act/31/enacted/en/html
  20. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1990/act/32/section/5/enacted/en/html#sec5
  21. https://martindale.cc.lehigh.edu/sites/martindale.cc.lehigh.edu/files/Patterson.pdf
  22. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1977/act/16/enacted/en/html
  23. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1998/act/21/enacted/en/html
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