Conference considers the value of household labour

The proposed replacement of the “women’s place is in the home” clause in the Irish constitution (Article 41.2) has offered an opportunity to raise wider concerns about the responsibilities and status of care work. Leading historians, sociologists and policy advocates gathered at Trinity College Dublin on Friday, February 15, in an effort to open up new conversations about household labour in Ireland and further afield.

Entitled Working for the Home: Past and Present, the conference provided expert context to current debate about the controversial clause, which has been in place since 1937. Panellists drawn from a range of sectors discussed the historic and contemporary value of housework, as well as the social impact of campaigns for women’s rights, and the challenges facing domestic workers in the modern day.

The conference was opened in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute by Ivana Bacik, Professor of Criminal Law, who provided a legalistic reading of Article 41.2, particularly focusing on its implications for economic and social equality.

Anne Dolan, Associate Professor in Modern Irish History, Trinity examined the political circumstances of the clause’s introduction, while other scholars including Andrew Urban, Jennifer Redmond, Maeve O’Riordan and Sarah O’Brien discussed the experiences of domestic workers and household managers across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Historians and sociologists such as Caitríona Beaumont, Linda Connolly, Mary McAuliffe, Ciara Meehan and Sorcha O’Brien considered the changing role of women in post-independence Ireland, commenting on the impact of campaigns against discrimination, as well as the cultural and technological shifts that facilitated new gender roles and identities.

The nature of domestic work in contemporary Ireland was the focus of another discussion featuring Jennifer McCarthy Flynn of the National Women’s Council, Máiréad Hayes of the Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament, Allison Metcalfe of HCA & Carers Ireland, and Tina Manipis, a member of the Migrant Rights Centre’s domestic workers’ action group, My Fair Home. Pablo Gracia of the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin provided cross-national analysis of housework and childcare practices, while the historian Lucy Delap highlighted continuities in domestic labour as well as forecasts for the future of the sector.

New ways of thinking about domestic work were also suggested by activist and academic Maggie Ronayne, and the American trade unionist Sam Weinstein. Kathleen Lynch of University College Dublin presented one of two closing addresses, discussing the need to better support care and love labour. A final keynote speech was delivered by Selma James, joint coordinator of the Global Women’s Strike, who shared lessons from her experience as a founder o the International Wages for Housework Campaign.

Working for the Home: Past and Present was the first of two gatherings planned to connect scholars and activists from the United States, Britain and Ireland, with a second event scheduled to take place in New Brunswick in February 2020. Moving on from conversations about Article 41.2, the second conference will emphasise Irish and British women’s migrations to Anglophone North American destinations in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and the understudied economic contributions that these labourers made as paid and reproductive labourers on both sides of the Atlantic during an era defined by the globalisation of capitalism and the emergence of various service industries.

The gathering at New Brunswick will also highlight the labour migrations of women from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Asia to Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, and the policies that govern and regulate exchanges between private households and foreign and postcolonial domestic labourers and caregivers today.

The conference was supported by the School of Histories and Humanities and the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin in conjunction with Rutgers University, New Brunswick.