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# History Books
From Article 41.2 to the X Case: An A-Z of pivotal policy moments in Irish women's history
We’ve catalogued some of the landmark moments and milestones in Irish women’s history as part of this month’s Good Information Project cycle.

WOMEN IN IRELAND have long had to fight for progress, equality, and self-determination, and there are very few who believe that the struggle is over.

This month, The Journal is taking a deep dive into gender equality in Ireland as part of The Good Information Project.

As part of our coverage, we’ve compiled an A-to-Z list of some of the key moments in Irish women’s historical, legislative and policy landmarks, as well as what steps might be taken to further gender equality in the coming years.

Article 41.2

This infamous article of Bunreacht na hÉireann codified an antiquated idea of a woman’s role in Irish society. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission notes that even as the Constitution was being drafted “its treatment of women in Article 41.2 and other provisions was the single biggest policy issues which dominated much of the debate at the time both inside and outside the Dáil”. 

Its first clause reads: “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.”

Last year, the Citizen’s Assembly on Gender Equality recommended that the wording be deleted and replaced via referendum.

Bill of rights for women

In 1985, Ireland acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the ‘bill of rights for women’. 

It was a landmark agreement, first adopted in 1979, which has since been ratified by 189 countries. 

The CEDAW Committee in 2017 published a report on Ireland’s compliance with its international obligations and found “several crucial gaps” with respect to Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, laws targeting gender-based violence, and issues specifically affecting Traveler women.

Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990 

Until 1990, the wording of Ireland’s Criminal Law (Rape) Act provided for the hypothetical defence that a husband could not be guilty of the rape of his wife. 

Following advice from the Law Reform Commission in 1987, the new statute abolished “any rule of law by virtue of which a husband cannot be guilty of the rape of his wife.” This was enacted in 1990, just 32 years ago.

Divorce referendum

Divorce was not allowed in Ireland until 1996. Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution originally stated that “no law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.” This was deleted following a closely-fought referendum in 1995, in which the Yes side won by fewer than 10,000 votes (50.28% to 49.72%)  and a law was passed the next year effecting the change.

a-rally-organised-by-the-anti-divorce-lobby-in-dublin-those-for-and-against-turned-out-for-the-demonstration-in-dublin-in-advance-of-the-referendum-vote-at-present-ireland-is-the-only-country-in-the Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There remain complicating factors when it comes to getting a divorce in Ireland, however, such as a legal requirement to have lived separately for two of the three years preceding the divorce.

European Institute for Gender Equality

The EIGE, an agency of the EU, produces a yearly Gender Equality Index. Most recently, Ireland ranked seventh of 27 EU member states when all categories such as health, work and knowledge were taken into account.

However, Ireland scores in the lower half of the index when it specifically looked at political power — owing largely to a lack of women in parliament and in local government.

Family Home Protection Act, 1976

Until 1976, it was possible for a man to sell a shared property without obtaining either the knowledge or consent of his partner. The 1976 law, introduced under Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, prevents one spouse or civil partner from selling, mortgaging, leasing or transferring the family/shared home without the consent of their partner.

Gender Recognition Act

In 2007, the High Court ruled that Ireland was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in not having a process to legally recognise the acquired gender of transgender people.

The Gender Recognition Act was introduced to enable people over the age of 16 to apply to change their gender in the eyes of the law. 

Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act 1992

Contraceptives were not available to women in Ireland without a prescription until as recently as 1993.

While condoms had been available since 1985, the original 1979 Act which codified the situation allowed only for other contraception to be made available at the behest of a doctor, rather than widely available. Then-Minister for Health Charlie Haughey called the law “an Irish solution to an Irish problem“, which writer John Drennan described as “a renowned turn of phrase on how to sidestep a fundamental issue”. 

This appraisal of the policy was savaged by TD Noel Browne, who called it “a Roman Catholic solution to an Irish problem.”

Irish Women’s Liberation Movement

A 1970s feminist activist group in Ireland comprising such members as writer Nell McCafferty, the IWLM was behind the ‘contraceptive train’ protest. In May of 1971, members of the group travelled to Northern Ireland to obtain products which were illegal in Ireland, including condoms, spermicidal products and birth-control pills. 

Justice department

In 1997, Ireland’s Department of Justice commissioned a report by a Task Force on Violence Against Women. 25 years on, key recommendations of the report have still not been implemented. 

The report called for a National Strategy on Violence Against Women for the implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, and to ensure “a coordinated and coherent strategy both to address the needs of victims and to seriously tackle its root causes.” 

Key Objectives

We are now two years into the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, which aims to foster a gender-equal Europe. It cites its key objectives as: “ending gender-based violence; challenging gender stereotypes; closing gender gaps in the labour market; achieving equal participation across different sectors of the economy; addressing the gender pay and pension gaps; closing the gender care gap and achieving gender balance in decision-making and in politics.”

Leadership roles

The third Balance for Better Business report, published in 2020 as part of an independent review group established by the government to improve gender balance in senior business leadership, found that 38% of Irish listed companies have no women on their leadership team.

One recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality suggested “enacting gender quota legislation that requires private companies to have at least 40% gender balance according to specific criteria such as turnover, number of employees etc.”

Marriage Bar

Married women were legally prohibited from holding jobs in the public and civil service until 1973. The marriage bar was finally lifted following a recommendation by the Commission on the Status of Women, who noted that over 2,000 women had been forced to resign their positions in the public service in the preceding three years alone.

National Maternity Hospital

A proposal to relocate Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital to the Elm Park campus of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group was met with great consternation when it was revealed the hospital would be on land owned by the Sisters of Charity order of nuns.

hospital 368 Sam Boal / Rolling News Sam Boal / Rolling News / Rolling News

Groups such as the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare argue that a maternity hospital should not be housed on private land owned by a religious order, and while the Sisters of Charity have announced their intention to “gift” the land to the state, such a transfer has yet to take place.

One in four

Charity group Women’s Aid say that one in four women in Ireland are in or have been in an abusive relationship. In 2020, Women’s Aid recorded 29,717 contacts and 30,841 disclosures of abuse, the vast majority of which were against women and girls.

Pay Gap Information Act

Since July 2021, companies of a certain size (250 employees or more) have been required by law to publish their gender pay gap in Ireland.

OECD-Eurostat figures from 2018 put Ireland’s gender pay gap at 11.3% in 2018, narrowly better than the EU average of 14.4%.


Ireland sorely lags when it comes to participation of women in government, ranking 100 out of 187 countries when it comes to parliamentary representation.

Less than one quarter of the TDs elected to the 33rd Dáil in 2020 were women and just four of the country’s 15 Cabinet ministers are women. At a local level, the make-up is similar, with women taking 25% of seats at the most recent council elections. 

Ireland currently has a 30% gender quota for party candidates at general elections, but the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality has recommended that this be bumped to 40%. 

Repeal the Eighth

Decades of activism for reproductive rights in Ireland culminated in 2018 with the Repeal the Eighth movement’s success in changing the Irish constitution by referendum to allow for abortions for any reason up to 12 weeks, and in a limited number of situations after 12 weeks. 

After a deeply contentious public debate over the issue of abortion, the Eighth amendment – which prohibited abortion – was removed with a landslide 66.9% share of the public vote. Abortion in Ireland is now legislated by the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.

Savita Halappanavar

The tragic death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway acted as a catalyst for the Repeal the Eighth movement. In 2012, Ms Halappanavar presented with a medical emergency while pregnant, was denied a termination and later died due to sepsis. 

A 2013 report by the HIQA determined that “a failure in the provision of the most basic elements of patient care to Savita Halappanavar and also the failure to recognise and act upon signs of her clinical deterioration in a timely and appropriate manner”. Savita’s death has come to be recognised as a flashpoint in the struggle for appropriate healthcare for women in Ireland.


A town in Galway, Tuam has become the by-word for the mistreatment of women and children that occurred at Mother and Baby Homes across in Ireland. 

tuam-single-mothers-and-babies-homes Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

On foot of reporting by local historian Catherine Corless, a test excavation of one such Bon Secours home revealed a significant number of human remains. Corless has estimated that as many as 796 babies may be buried at the site, and it is hoped that a full exhumation will take place this year.

Unpaid labour

According to the report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality, twice as many unpaid female as male carers provide over 43 hours of care per week.

Last year, the assembly recommended a measure by which these predominantly female ‘qualified adults’ receive their own social protection payments in future instead of being dependent for income on the main social protection recipient.

Vicky Phelan

Campaigner Vicky Phelan came to the forefront of public attention during the 2018 CervicalCheck scandal, when it became known that 162 women had not been informed that an audit had found that mistakes were made in the analysis of their cervical scans. 

Phelan, who has been living with cancer since 2014, has since fought fiercely for greater transparency in the Irish healthcare system and greater respect for women’s healthcare issues. She was awarded the Freedom of Limerick City in 2021, and named as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2018.

“Women and Men in Ireland”

The Central Statistics Office regularly publishes “Women and Men in Ireland”, a compendium of key statistics which enable us to map progress achieved towards de facto gender equality in Ireland. The most recent edition of the report was published in 2019.

The X Case

A precursor to the Repeal movement, Attorney General vs X was a case that came before the Irish Supreme Court in 1992, establishing the right of an Irish woman to an abortion if there was a threat to the woman’s life through suicide. 

The case involved a 14-year-old girl and ward of the state who had been the victim of rape, and Attorney General Harry Whelehan sought an injunction to prevent her from procuring a termination. Ultimately, the Irish Supreme Court ruled in favour of X.

(Together For) Yes

An lobby group comprising several different campaigns – including the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Ireland Family Planning Association, the Yes campaign demonstrated the power of civil society and grassroots campaigns to bring about major legislative change in Ireland.

CELEBRATING 734 Sam Boal / Rolling News Sam Boal / Rolling News / Rolling News

Zappone & Gilligan vs Revenue Commissioners

While former Minister for Children Katherine Zappone’s most recent contributions to the Irish news cycle are less illustrious, in 2006 she and her wife Ann Louise Gilligan challenged the Irish state to recognise their Canadian same-sex marriage.

While the court case was unsuccessful, it stood brought about a wave of attention that contributed to the introduction of civil partnerships for gay couples in Ireland four years later, and the 2015 referendum on Marriage Equality.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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