Editorial - Womens rights

The cause of women's rights must command the support of all those who believe themselves to stand against injustice and inequality. By Vincent Browne

The campaign for women's rights is regarded at best in Ireland with condescending, slightly irritated tolerance. It's appreciated that women are deserving of more equal opportunity and should be "involved" more in the politiical, business and social areas of our society but there is no sense of the position of women representing a burning innjustice, demanding radical and very disruptive remedies.

Were a large ethnic or religious minority effectively exxcluded from all centres of power- in Irish 'society; were this minority for the most part paid appallingly low wages; were the incidence of poverty among this minority far higher than in society asa whole; were there laws and official pracctices discriminating against this minority; and were the enntire cultural ethos of our society heavily biased against this minority, then "the cause" of this minority" would be the major issue in our politics. Indeed were this minority to resort to violence to redress their grievances, then there are many who would justify this on the grounds that the innjustice being attacked, represented such a major injustice and, in itself, a major violent force. ..

Yet women in Ireland are in exactly the position outtlined above in the case of a hypothetical ethnic or religious minority. There are virtually no women at the centre of power in any area of Irish life (see the current issue of Status). While there is one woman in the cabinet, she is not on the crucial economic sub-committee, nor is she in a posiition, isolated as she is, to significantly affect the overall direction of policy. There is not a single woman at the senior executive level in the civil service or in any of the semi-State companies, although there are three women directors of public bodies. There are only a handful of women on the boards of the 100 top public companies in Ireland and almost all of these are there as family nomiinees.

Needless to remark there is no woman at the centre of another major power centre of Irish society, the Catholic Hierarchy. There are women heads of religious orders, hospitals and schools but all of these remain very much subject to male authority, usually that of the male parish priest or male bishop.

Women hold almost all the low pay jobs in our society.

They are very much more affected by the unemployment crisis than are men. There are very many more women in poverty than there are men and, given the male power over whatever disposable income there is, women suffer very much more from deprivation than do men.

There are still several laws on the statute books which discriminate against women, on marriage, on property rights, on contraception, etc.

But most of all there is a strong cultural bias in our society against women. The chief originating force for this bias is the Catholic Church. Its entire ethos is biased against women - women are not apparently good enough for the priesthood, women are excluded from all the major deciision making levels of the church, and women are subjected to condescending and demeaning propaganda about their role and their status.

The Catholic Church is not the only anti-woman cultural propagandist. Almost all the other churches are just as bad but they are not as significant in Irish society. But our poliitical culture is also to blame. Women are encouraged to stay at home, rather than playa full part in the life of society as a whole, while there is no cultural i->,ressure on men to play their part in parenthood. Women are relegated to a seconndary position in almost every sphere of activity, from makking tea and licking envelopes within political parties, to attending coffee sessions and "cultural events" on occassions such as the IMI conference while their male counterrparts are getting on with the important business of deciding the nation's future.

The cause of women's rights must command the support of all those in society who believe themselves to stand against injustice and inequality, of all who believe themmselves to be liberal, tolerant, compassionate people. It is not possible to be even luke warm on women's rights and to have any claims to liberalism or egalitarianism. The changes that are basic to any programme on women's rights are as follows:

* a radical programme of positive discrimination in favour of women at all levels in the public service, along the lines as that instituted in favour of the blacks in the United States. This involves the establishment of quotas at all levels of the public service which would set down the minimum number of women who would have to be employed at each level. Of course, it would mean the dropping of standards for the time being, until women as a whole caught up in terms of qualifications, expertise and competence with men in certain areas but this is part of the price that has to be paid in fairness for the years of discrimination and victimiisation that women have endured. At a later stage this policy should be applied to all companies in the private sector.

* the immediate funding of child care facilities throughout the country to allow women playa full part in the life of our society without being laboured by guilt feelings about abandoning their children.

* the passing of a constitutional amendment explicitely guaranteeing the rights of women, irrespective of anything in the constitution regarding the sacredness of the family etc.

* the repeal of all legislation, either through Oireachtas action or by way of the fiat of the Supreme Court, which discriminates against women.

* the strict enforcement of minimum wage levels and the establishment of adequate machinery to supervise this process.

* the passing of legislation prohibiting the use of all sexist material in advertising or public notices.

* the institution of a course of women's studies at all levels of education and the further removal of all sexist bias in the educational system and the further removal of all sexist material from the curricula at all levels.

* the ending of State funding for all segregated schools. This is of particular importance for the separate schooling system is a major contributor to the sexist bias of the eduucational system.

* the provision of adequate health care for all women, inncluding a comprehensive contraception service.

These measures represent only a start. Centuries of disscrimination against women cannot be wiped out overnight but it is imperative that the injustices which exist be recoggnised for what they are and that a start be made, especially in the realm of changing the cultural attitudes towards WOmen and their role. •