New Book Explores Changing Gender Roles in Ireland

Posted on: 08 December 2014

Trinity College Dublin's Department of Sociology (Dr Daniel Faas, Head) and the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies (Dr Catherine Lawless, Director) co-hosted the launch of Gender Roles in Ireland: Three Decades of Attitude Change, authored by Dr Margret Fine-Davis and just published by Routledge. The book was launched  by Monica Barnes, former Fine Gael TD, and previously Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Women’s Rights. The book presents time-series data over more than three decades documenting changing attitudes to gender roles in Ireland.

The book spans the period from 1975 to the present, documenting changing attitudes toward the role of women, while also presenting more recent data from the author’s latest research. The results paint a detailed and complex picture of the evolving role of women in Ireland during a period of rapid social change, which included major developments in social legislation concerning gender equality: equal pay, employment equality, contraception, and taxation of married women.  

Commenting on the findings, author Margret Fine-Davis said:  “The studies examined attitudes to these big issues of the day both before and after the legislation and thus we had a natural social experiment: It is clear from the data that the legislation of the 1970s to 1980 had a major impact on attitudes to gender roles. The data from 1986 – 2005 also showed that attitudes continued to move in a more liberal egalitarian direction, particularly in the area of maternal employment. Whereas we used to see huge ambivalence, this has largely disappeared.”

Basic attitudes to women have also changed and while a significant proportion used to see women as inferior, this has diminished to such an extent that it is almost negligible. Attitude shifts occurred for all groups, but even though men have shifted in a more egalitarian direction, a gender gap still remains. The same is true for urban and rural differences. Rural attitudes have moved to be more like urban ones, but they still are playing catch-up.

While the social legislation of the 1970s helped to change attitudes to women’s roles, legislation is now lagging behind people’s attitudes. This is most clearly seen in relation to the issue of abortion. It was evident in the 1986 study, which showed almost 30 years ago, that approximately half of the population supported abortion under several circumstances. This level of support has increased to 70-80% in numerous public opinion polls.

Fine-Davis said: “The public are way ahead of the politicians on this one – and as the Joint Oireachtas Committee said in its commentary on my findings published in 1988, a referendum with a yes or no answer is ‘too blunt an instrument’ to measure something as nuanced as this. Ireland has come a long way in the last 40 years, but more still remains to be done.” 

Dr Margret Fine-Davis, Monica Barnes, and Professor Daniel Faas.

Monica Barnes emphasised that: “the attitudes of the public are so far ahead and they are so appalled at the circumstances that women are in danger. We now have a tradition in which the circumscribed circumstances – in which doctors can, with confidence, treat a woman – are in question.” She indicated that she would be campaigning for a repeal of the eighth amendment.

Further commenting on the findings, Monica Barnes said that the book rightly identified the Catholic Church as having such a significant influence on the role of women over the decades right into the ‘80’s. She said: “We tend to forget how powerful they were, although many of us do remember how powerful they were in the divorce referendum and particularly on the Eighth Amendment in 1983. But I was struck yesterday reading certain papers from the First Inter-Party Government from 1948 – 51, when women were mere appendages and their major work was as homemakers and mothers. They reminded me that all policy and all legislation went to them to be passed, or accepted or rejected.”  

On the other hand, Ms Barnes pointed out that: “the good new is the resilience, the energy, the humour and the legislation that has enabled women to get where they are today,” though further social changes were necessary to promote greater work-life balance. She rejected recent initiatives of companies to offer to pay for women to freeze their eggs so that childbearing shouldn’t interfere with their promotion. “The answer is that men and women should be able to choose when they themselves have children and work should allow them to do this.”