The Irish Women's Liberation Movement examines the law in 1971.

[The following document is an extract from Chains or change published by the Irish Women's Liberation Movement in 1971.]

Although there has been some piecemeal reform in the legal status of married women in this country, it can still be said that upon marriage a woman in Ireland enters into a state of civil death.

Since 1957, a married woman is allowed to hold and dispose of property, to sue and be sued, to contract. Subsequent legislation has allowed her certain basic rights of inheritance upon her husband's estate.

Nonetheless, a married woman in Ireland has still no real identity or existence in her own right. She is still regarded as the chattel of her husband. Her domicile is automatically her husband's - that is to say, if he happens to be in America, she is also legally speaking in America, no matter where she might 'actually' be. She must have permission from him for all kinds of things - pledging any credit or making almost any kind of private financial arrangements; putting the children on her passport; in certain cases, if she needs to have a gynaecological operation.

A man may desert his wife for as long as he chooses - but return whenever he wishes and automatically resume all his marital and parental rights.

A woman immediately forfeits all her rights, including access to the marital home or to the children, if she leaves him.

He can change their name without consulting her

She may not.

He is not obliged to reveal to her what he earns

She is to him.

If she pays tax on her own income, it is her husband who is entitled to any of her rebates.

He is entitled to scrutinise her taxation form.

She is not entitled to see his.

He is not obliged to support her above and beyond what he considers she needs. She may only pledge his credit for the bare necessities - over and above he can disclaim all responsibility.

If she spends her earnings running their home, she may not give away, sell or raise money on the contents.

If he improves her property, he may be entitled to be paid, especially if he is a skilled craftsman.

If she saves money out of the housekeeping allowance which he has seen fit to give her, it is still legally his money and she may not spend it as she pleases.

She is not entitled to any of his savings, even if it is her household economies which have made these savings possible. If a wife feels that she is not being adequately provided for, (and remember, it is the husband who decides, quite arbitrarily, what constitutes 'provision') she must challenge him in the courts. She has no other means of redress. Even then, in contrast to other countries (such as, for example, West Germany) there is no statutory ruling about what percentage of his (their) income she is entitled to.

In regard to the children, the situation of the Irish wife is even more anomalous. Though the Irish Constitution emphasises the duties of both parents, the law accords rights overwhelmingly to one - the father.

The father is the legal guardian of the children; he has the sole right to decide upon their education, religion and domicile. He can draw from the children's Post Office savings - she can't. He must give consent to an operation on the children. He can have the children named on his passport without her consent and take them abroad whenever he wishes, without her permission. Legally, the Children's Allowance money is his. If he should wish to squander every penny of it, he is perfectly within his rights.

The Constitution of this country promises a special place to women in the home. But the law - most of it made by nineteenth century British legislators - has not fulfilled that promise before the law. Irishwomen in the home have noticeably inferior status.

And then, of course, if the woman wishes, or needs, to go out to work, she goes into unequal pay, the marriage bar, no amenities and penalising taxation.

Irish Women's Liberation Movement, Chains or change, Dublin, 1971.


  1. What kind of source is this?
  2. What were the aims of the people who composed the document, in your opinion?
  3. Consider the document in its historical context.
  4. Evaluate the extracts above as evidence for the history of women in or about 1971.
  5. Given that the document was framed by a pressure group, do you detect any evidence of bias? Give reasons for your opinion.
  6. Describe in one or two sentences each, what the document states to be the consequence of laws regarding any three of the following:
    domicile; desertion; name; earnings; tax; support; property; children; work.
  7. Select the three disadvantages you consider were most serious for women, according to the document. Give reasons for your selection.
  8. 'There must have been good reasons for these laws.' Discuss this statement with regard to any one or more of the legal restrictions above, trying to understand why they were created in the first place.


  1. Refer to Raising awareness in Ireland above to research the Irish Women's Liberation Movement.
  2. Set out the information above in table or chart form as follows:
    Two columns (male and female)
    Nine rows (domicile, desertion, name, earnings, tax, support, property, children, work)
    [You may consider using computer Cut, Copy and Paste commands.]
  3. Interview women and men who married before 1971.
    How much did they know about laws which restricted women?
    Did the women know they would be restricted?
    Did the men know they would gain so much power?
    What are their opinions on the matter now?
  4. Organise a class debate on the motion:
    'That legal restrictions on married women were harmless because few men took advantage of them.'
  5. 'The Irish Women's Liberation Movement was a necessary development.' Discuss.
  6. Research any law in force at present that you think affects women or men unfairly.
  7. Make a poster advertising or opposing a meeting of any women's organisation.
  8. Research the legal aspects of today's marriage contract.
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