Fifty years ago, my wife had to resign from her job in the civil service. We have happy photos of the day in question, as it was our wedding day. However, she and a generation of women forced to give up their careers remain unhappy with the infamous marriage ban.
It was introduced in 1925 by the then Minister of Finance, Ernest Blythe. He had also tried to restrict access to public service to men, but the Senate had rejected it. However, it effectively carried over the practice that had prevailed under the British – the British Treasury had operated a marriage bar since 1894, as well as a marriage gratuity for those forced to leave.
An elderly guest at our wedding told us that when she started at the Ministry of Education in 1916, women had to leave work 15 minutes before men, so they wouldn’t meet on the stairs.
Indeed, women had initially only been admitted to the British civil service on terms of segregation from men. An elderly guest at our wedding told us that when she started at the Ministry of Education in 1916, women had to leave work 15 minutes before men, so they wouldn’t meet on the stairs.
However, the ban on marriage was a much deeper incapacity. While the British civil service abolished it in 1946, it was not until July 1973. Apart from the civil service, marriage bans were also common until this period in other jobs, especially white collar workers such as banks.
The 1972 Commission on the Status of Women recommended the abolition of the marriage ban, but membership of the EEC was the real engine of change. This commission was chaired by Thekla Beere, the first female secretary of a department. She never married, but had been in a 40-year relationship with a Dublin businessman. It was very unusual at that time – women got married or were left alone.
By mid-1972, it was unclear if, or when, the wedding bar would go away, so rather than wait forever, we planned our wedding, at the cost of Eithne’s permanent labor.
While the marriage ban was eventually lifted, it still cast a shadow over the civil service for decades. The marriage gratuity was retained for pre-1973 participants who left within two years of their marriage. For those with at least six years of service to qualify, it was worth half a year’s salary, tax-free – a huge incentive to leave to anyone who had to meet the expense of settling in and putting up a security deposit.
A Maynooth University study confirmed the far-reaching impact of the marriage ban. It has affected about one in five women who are now in their 70s and who have already married and worked for pay. This study also revealed that those required to retire in the event of marriage had higher qualifications than others, reflecting that this was a white-collar phenomenon.
The Commission on the Status of Women has highlighted the serious loss of talent for public service caused by the marriage ban. A 1975 Irish Times article reported that bosses were generally relieved that women could now stay on the job, reducing their turnover of skilled staff.
Two generations after the end of the ban on marriage, women are accessing the top ranks of the civil service in greater numbers. Six of the current chief secretaries of government departments are women, and we have seen women leading other key offices such as the Revenue Commissioners and the Director of Public Prosecutions. But that took a long time to come.
The Ministry of Finance remains an exception today in terms of the few women in its senior ranks compared to other ministries
In his recently published history of the Ministry of Finance 1959-99, Ciarán Casey highlights the persistence of misogynistic views at the top of this ministry in the 1990s. The Ministry of Finance today remains an exception in terms of the number of women in its ranks superior to other departments, including its sister Department of Public Expenditure and, indeed, the Central Bank.
Today, we recognize the importance of a diverse workforce, where the inclusion of people of different genders, social backgrounds, ethnicities and disabilities brings different perspectives to work and enriches the workplace. Research into the causes of Ireland’s economic take-off has shown the key role played by the increased participation of women in the labor market in the substantial economic growth of the past three decades. Since the early 1970s, the proportion of working women has doubled, rising from around 28% in 1971 of the over-15s to 60% today.
On average, women workers are better educated than men and their increased presence has also increased overall productivity. The Taliban-like rule that prevented married women from entering or keeping their jobs was therefore not only an injustice to the women themselves, but it also stunted Ireland’s economic development.