1970s Ireland: A Good Place for Women?

Over the last week, a particular newspaper article has repeatedly popped up on twitter.  It was published in December 2012 in the Galway Advertiser, but I don’t actually recall seeing much about it at the time.  However, I’m not surprised that it has been so frequently tweeted and re-tweeted.  The headline alone – ‘Ten things an Irish Woman Could not Do in 1970’ – was enough to pique the reader’s curiosity.  The list of ten ways in which Irish women were discriminated against was accompanied by a brief ‘how it changed’ section.  Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 12.36.53Given the obvious interest that this article provoked, and because the position of women in 1970s Ireland features quite prominently in my forthcoming book, I decided to write this post to offer some further insight into how change was effected.  I’ve chosen to focus on three areas: equal pay, contraception and jury service.  This is already a lengthy post, and to do justice to all ten topics would require a forum other than a blog.

When the 1970s arrived, contraception was illegal, women had to leave the public service on marriage, desserted wives and unmarried mothers were not supported by the state,  female jurors were unheard of, and women were paid less money than men for the same work.  Female TDs were also conspiciously absent from the Dáil, a problem that dated to the foundation of the State in 1922.  The position of women in Irish society was aptly captured in a ‘job description’ printed on the front-cover of Bread and Roses, a magazine produced by women in UCD in the mid-1970s.

Bread and Roses

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 21.25.12

Various women’s groups, most notably the Irish Liberation Movement (IWLM) and Irish Women United, appeared at this time.  But rather than engaging directly with politics through the party system, these women’s groups chose instead to take on the role of activists and lobbyists.  They campaigned for change for women from the outside.  Other interest groups, such as AIM and Cherish, also emerged, and although they were not specifically women’s movements, they dealt with issues of concern to women.

The National Coalition of Labour and Fine Gael came to power in 1973.  The parties had been propelled into government on the back of a fourteen-point plan, which included a promise to ‘end all forms of existing discriminations against women’.  At legislative level, women’s rights were significantly improved by the Coalition.  However, the initiative for change in the areas of equal pay, contraception and female jurors did not originate within the government.  Through their use of the courts’ system, women acted as important agents for change, although the influence of Europe cannot be underestimated either.

Equal Pay


On 3 July 1973, Michael O’Leary, Minister for Labour, introduced the Employment (Equal Pay) Bill, 1973 in the Dáil.  But, behind the scenes, as files within the National Archives clearly indicate, the government was not fully committed to the legislation.  This reluctance needs to be placed in the wider context.  The Arab-Israeli War of October 1973 caused an international economic crisis.  The oil embargo by Arab exporters, which resulted in a shortage, led to the quadrupling of crude oil prices from $3 to $12 a barrel.  The downturn in the global economy restricted the National Coalition’s capacity to achieve its aims and limited its policymaking options.  The financial burden of implementing equal pay in the public sector was considered too great.  The Irish Independent captured the difficulties facing the government:

The EEC decision on equal pay might be more acceptable generally in this country if we were experiencing normal economic conditions.  We are not.  Our unemployment figures are at an all-time high and the employment prospects for thousands of people coming out of school this year are bleak.  Our commerce and industry is trying, with difficulty, to maintain a rate of business in the face of all kinds of trouble.

Almost as soon as the preparatory documents crossed his desk, Richie Ryan, Minister for Finance, expressed concern about the cost implications.  He reiterated his concerns in a circular to his cabinet colleagues in November 1973 in which he advocated delaying implementation until 1977.

The Federal Union of Employers (FUE) linked government pay policy to the subject of equal pay, pointing out in one statement that before equal pay was even applied, some companies still had to contend with wage increases due under the terms of the national pay agreement.  The FUE contended that jobs would be lost – a claim rejected by Patrick Hillery, the European Commissioner for Social Affairs who had played a prominent role in promoting equal pay at European level.  Speaking at a press conference in Dublin, he questioned why women should be ‘asked to accept the added sacrifice of waiting for equal pay in a period of recession’.

Pressure on the government increased.  The European Trade Union Confederation announced its support of ICTU.  A statement from the Institute of Professional Civil Servants described the government’s actions as ‘shabby and mean’.  An equal pay petition, organised by trade unionists and women activists, was delivered to government buildings; it contained more than 35,000 signatures, including those of members of the opposition front bench. 11,000 civil servants threatened strike action for 1 May 1976, which was later averted following a decision at a special conference of Civil and Public Service Staff Associations.

As pressure mounted, the advice of the Attorney General, Declan Costello, was sought.  He advised the government that any measures to delay the introduction of equal pay would have no legal standing without a derogation from Brussels.  It was decided that he should lodge such a request.  The European Commission rejected Ireland’s request on 14 April 1976 and the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act, which had been passed in 1974, thus came into effect.  Equal pay, after all, had been one of the preconditions of Ireland’s membership of the EEC.  The government’s handling of the situation – particularly by seeking the derogation – damaged its credibility and compromised its record on women’s rights.  That record was further undermined by the debate on contraception.




The importation, display or sale of contraceptives was illegal under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1935.  Despite that, an increasing number of women were practising birth control each year in Ireland.  The pill was available to women as a cycle regulator, and it is frequently remarked that Irish women at the time had the most irregular periods in Europe!

Irish feminists had attempted to force the issue on Saturday 22 May 1971.  Forty-seven women travelled by train to Belfast with the intention of buying condoms and spermicides to bring back across the border.  There’s some great footage in the RTÉ archivesWoman’s Way put the ‘contraception controversy’ on its front cover in June 1973.  On taking office in 1973, Liam Cosgrave informed one Dublin priest that the government had given the issue ‘no consideration’.  The previous Jack Lynch / Fianna Fáil administration had also been reluctant to deal with the subject, and efforts by the Irish Family Planning Rights Association, set up in October 1970, to lobby for legalisation had been ignored.

During the 1973 general election campaign, Labour’s Ruairí Quinn had argued that ‘an end to all forms of social and economic discrimination against women’ would have to be coupled with ‘change in the contraception, divorce and adoption laws’. Although divorce law was not publicly addressed until the 1980s, the National Coalition did attempt to frame legislation that would legalise the sale of contraceptives.  However, the decision to introduce the measure did not originate in cabinet, but rather it was a response to legal action taken by an ordinary citizen.

Twenty-nine year old Mary McGee had taken a challenge to the High Court after customs officers seized contraceptive jelly sent to her through the post from England.  McGee, who already had four children, suffered from toxaemia, a condition that can affect the placenta and put the expectant mother at risk of stroke or even death.  It had already caused serious complications during her previous pregnancies and her doctor advised that a further pregnancy placed her at serious risk of suffering a cerebral thrombosis (stroke).  Her High Court case failed, prompting the challenge to the Supreme Court where the majority of judges ruled in her favour.

The resulting legislation prepared by the Minister for Justice was not progressive.  It was not a question of making contraceptives available, but rather of limiting their sale.  It thus reflected the continued reluctance by political parties to formulate progressive policy in the area of morality.  However, Patrick Cooney’s Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptive Bill, 1974 was never placed on the statute books due to a free vote on the government side during the second stage.  Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave entered the Níl (no) lobby, along with six Fine Gael colleagues, and voted with the opposition, helping to defeat the bill by 75 votes to 61.  Labour’s Dan Spring did not attend the Dáil that day, and his absence was interpreted as opposition to the legislation.

The files of the Department of the Taoiseach at the National Archives of Ireland contain some intriguing and revealing correspondence from ordinary citizens. The correspondence was interspersed with communications from such groups as Irish Women United, which proposed free legal contraception in the belief that the ‘women in Ireland should have the full right to control their fertility’.  However, the majority of those letters retained – penned by women, not just men – supported Cosgrave’s decision, which many interpreted as a stand against the corruption of Irish society.  One voter claimed that it would become the ‘means of weakening the social, moral and physical structure of our society and would inevitably cause a serious upheaval in the whole fabric of society’. This was not a singular view.

The availability of contraception was identified in British conservative circles as threatening to uproot sexuality from its grounding in marriage, and fears of promiscuity and a perceived increase in abortion, had fuelled opposition to birth control there.  There were similar concerns in Ireland, revealing a continued conservatism in Irish society.  When the Well Woman Centre opened on Dublin’s Lower Leeson Street in January 1978, it was picketed by members of Mna na hEireann and Parent Concern who carried posters that read ‘Parents!  Contraception means promiscuity and abortion!’.

A Fianna Fáil government eventually enacted legislation in 1979.  The party had pledged in its 1977 election manifesto to ‘ensure the widest possible acceptance of positive policy for family planning and enact the necessary legislation’.  Given the response to the National Coalition’s efforts, any proposal that would have ‘the widest possible acceptance’ would have to be limited in scope.  Indeed, Fianna Fáil’s legislation introduced by Charles Haughey was not designed to be a liberal measure.  Contraception was to be made available only to married couples with a doctor’s prescription.

Female Jurors


One of the aims outlined by the IWLM in its Chains or change report was the admission of women to jury service – a recommendation also contained in the report by the Commission on the Status of Women.  However, the legislation permitting female jurors was introduced by the National Coalition only after IWLM members Mary Anderson and Máirín de Búrca challenged the Juries Act, 1927.  In 1927, Kevin O’Higgins, the Cumann na nGaedheal Minister for Justice, sought to exclude women from jury service, and he also dispensed with female shorthand writers in court.  The ban came only six years after women were given the right to sit on juries for the first time in Britain.  He defended his decision on administrative grounds, arguing that there would be a massive undertaking involved in contacting all women, asking them if they wanted to serve, and then providing alternative accommodation in the courts for them.  He was insistent that most women were unwilling or reluctant to serve.  He also wanted to shelter women from potentially unsettling cases, matters ‘one would not like to discuss with the feminine members of one’s own family’.  There was a certain irony, as the Irish Statesman pointed out, that O’Higgins was a member of a government that had come to power on the back of a revolution in which ‘women were in the fighting line from start to finish’.  Under pressure from the opposition, an amendment was included that allowed women to apply to serve, but as historian Maryann Valiulis has noted, this was ‘merely the illusion of choice’.

The 1927 Juries Act stood un-amended until the de Búrca vs the Attorney General Supreme Court case caused the coalition to introduce the Juries Act, 1976.  Anderson and de Búrca had been arrested outside the Dáil in August 1971 after a march against the Prohibition and Forcible Entry Bill organised by the Committee to Oppose Repressive Legislation.  They were charged with using threatening and abusive language and with obstructing the Gardaí.  While awaiting trial, Anderson and de Búrca started proceedings in the High Court against the State.  They argued that they could not receive a fair trial as their case would not be heard in front of a panel of their peers, due to the absence of female jurors.  They also claimed that section three of the Juries Act, 1927, created a further imbalance as the jury would be composed only of men of a certain financial status.  De Búrca and Anderson vs the Attorney General failed in June 1973 after Mr Justice Pringle J concluded that the constitution did not provide for wide representation on juries and that, historically, they had always been restricted to limited groups of persons. However, the Supreme Court appeal, heard in November and December 1975, proved successful.  It found both sections three and five to be unconstitutional.  Thus, not only was the status of women upgraded, but service was also extended to men whose financial position vis-a-vis their land holdings had previously rendered them ineligible.


The Galway Advertiser article was accompanied by the sub-title ‘be prepared to cringe’.  Certainly, the restrictions listed are unthinkable in 2013, and women are suitably appalled.  But it is a misconception to think that women were equally outraged in the 1970s.  Rather, there was a strong conservatism in Irish society, and this extended beyond moral values.  There are enough letters in newspapers of the time from women opposing equal pay to indicate that, as a collective gender, women were not appalled.  Furthermore, it is important to consider the restrictions in the context of the 1970s.  The National Coalition may have baulked at the idea of introducing equal pay, but this attitude was largely influenced by the strained economic climate.  After all, that same government introduced unmarried mothers allowance (as it was called at the time) and reversed the policy of withdrawing deserted wives allowance if the husband secured a divorce abroad.


Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

8 thoughts on “1970s Ireland: A Good Place for Women?

  1. Ciara, Diarmaid Ferriter (who is lauded in the article you mention) takes up and synthesises the impressive work of a number of feminist scholars/women’s historians on the Irish women’s movement, in his treatise of Irish feminism. I look forward to reading your interpretation

    1. Thanks for your comment, Linda. My book is largely based on research conducted during my time as an IRCHSS Postdoctoral Fellow. Diarmaid was actually the mentor to that project.

  2. Hi, I enjoyed your article, but I find the last paragraph to be very loaded, particularly the sentence that indicates most Irish women were strongly conservative and opposed to equal pay. This is a very powerful statement and should be based on more information/research than a casual account of lots of letters to newspapers. Could you please include more information to support your opinion? Thank you.

    1. Hi Emily, thanks for visiting. Happy to supply more information.

      To clarify, I’m not implying that most Irish women were opposed to equal pay. Admittedly, my statement is, perhaps, rather clumsily worded. I was trying to get across the idea that reform in the 1970s was not something that strongly exercised the majority of women.

      The women’s movement, in many ways, was unrepresentative of the non-politicised woman. Finola Kennedy, in her Cottage or Creche, refers to a survey carried out between 1984-5 that found very few housewives had identified with the Women’s Movement (p. 109). Banshee (the journal of Irishwomen United) provides an interesting glimpse into this. The editors did not shy away from their critics, and there are a myriad of letters from women who felt that the organisation had been too emotive or alienating or radical in its approach to certain issues. Additionally, for an older generation of women there is clear evidence of them struggling to locate their place in a changing Ireland. This is something very apparent from letters to women’s magazines / columns, and indeed even the content of some of those magazines. Paul Ryan has dealt with this in his study of the letters sent to the agony aunt Angela Macnamara – he refers to it as ‘fault lines of inter-generational conflict’. This idea of a continued conservatism amidst change is something that was developed in a special edition of Irish Political Studies in 2008.

      The daily newspapers carry a multitude of pictures of women campaigning outside places like the Well Woman Centre I mention in the post. Then, of course, there are the thick files in the Department of the Taoiseach papers at the NAI from women urging against, not just the legalization of contraception, but also things like single mothers allowance and even deserted wives allowance. I think that the restrictions on women in the 1970s, though not in the too distant past, are so unthinkable today that, in some cases (and I’m not including you in this), there is a tendency to project a current sense of appall back on the 1970s. And the point I was trying to make is that, many women were conservative in that decade and weren’t actively lobbying for change.

      Hope this addresses your concerns, but any further feedback is welcome.

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