The Joy Club member and retired relationships therapist Mary Gorman reflects upon the inequality she and her peers had to overcome, growing up as women in rural Ireland.
Having come to the end of Black History Month, after learning about the many amazing people who were able to break through the barriers of inequality and discrimination, I was left wanting to delve deeper into the human psyche and understand when one realises the unfairness of it all and has the courage to challenge convention.
I was drawn back to growing up as a girl in rural Ireland. Having four older brothers and one younger, I can easily say the male voice was certainly heard in my household. I remember the day the unfairness hit me, after my mother asked me once again to iron my brothers’ shirts; I replied “why don’t they iron their own shirts”. I refused and that began my journey into becoming a rebellious teenager – yet unable to articulate my feelings. I was too young to understand inequality, discrimination and prejudice. It all just felt unjust. I would often say “Mammy, it is not fair they never have to do the chores.” Her reply would be “Our Lady will be proud of you”.
As I reflect on it all now, Ireland was steeped in religion and the people indoctrinated by what they call ‘the word of God,’ there was a prevailing fear of committing sin and ending up in the fires of Hell. Such a mantra was often used as the weapon against what was then perceived as disobedience. The quote below comes from the Good News Bible, a bishop, called Timothy back in AD90-140.
“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man. She is to be quiet.” (Timothy 1 2:12)
It had been illegal for women to work since the 1880s when marriage bars were introduced to reserve employment opportunities outside of the home only for men. Unmarried women worked in the lowest paying jobs, ensuring that the better jobs went to the men – leading, of course, to their sense of greater importance as ‘breadwinners.’ The average woman like my mother adhered to convention and felt it was her duty from God to instil these beliefs in me as a young girl. It was never explained to me where it all began, but rather do as you are told.
The marriage bars in the U.K. were removed for teachers and the BBC in 1944, but it wasn’t until 1977 when these marriage bars were finally abolished under European law. However, in Southern Ireland, married women who worked in the Irish civil service were legally required to retire as soon as they got married right up until 1973. At the time I lived in Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, but whilst the bars had been lifted the underlying cultural attitudes remained. In the early 1970s, my sister-in-law shared with me that she had been offered a job with a local housing organisation. She feared breaking this news to our mother-in-law so I was given the task.
“I never thought I would see the day that a Gorman woman would have to go out to work,” she said
“Perhaps she wants to.”
A rather indignant retort came back, “No woman wants to go out to work, bringing shame upon their husband.”
My sister-in-law did take the job and I was in awe of her courage. It was around this time that I was planning to relocate to England. We arrived in Cheshire and I experienced a freedom from leaving behind the embedded societal way of thinking.
I am left wondering if, during this time or later in life, did the men ever think that it was unfair on them to have to be the breadwinner – or indeed acknowledge the unfairness for us women.
My husband was recently left wondering why Timothy’s words hadn’t worked.
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