“Her identity was an image. Or was it a fiction?”-The 8th Amendment and The Irish Church-State Effort to Control Female Sexuality


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A demo over the X Case in 1992. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

“The future of the country is bound up with the dignity and purity of the women of Ireland”. —Dr. Gilmartin, Archbishop of Tuam, 1962

“Today we acknowledge the role of the state in your ordeal” (in Irish Examiner 2013)-The Taoiseach’s address to Magdalene Laundry survivors. 


As a post-colonial Catholic society in which the shadows of religious ideology and tradition still inform the viewpoint of many, it seems that Ireland as a nation has struggled to read between the lines of those dominant imagined narratives of womanhood which have come permeate the very marrow of our society, the reality of herstory becoming masked beneath the social construction. The widespread support displayed in favor of the 8th Amendment is indicative of this, in turn raising a whole host of concerning questions regarding the possibility of an internalized prejudice towards women, one that has become woven into the very fabric of our identity as a Catholic society seemingly reluctant to move on from a past plagued by an endless stream of infringements upon women’s citizenship rights; a society easily manipulated by base scaremongering tactics and misinformation perpetuated by those in favor of retaining the 8th amendment; a familiar narrative voiced by the very agents implicated in numerous past instances of female oppression in Ireland; namely religious authorities, and the far right; the same class of individuals governing the growing anti-truth, anti-authority movement dominated by Trump politics and Brexit; campaigns that we as a country have overtly sneered at, jeering at the idiocy of Americans, of the British for falling for such mistruths and propagandist campaign tactics, in the light of the fact that we ourselves as a nation are proving just as credulous, our self determination just as easily compromised by the dishonest persuasion strategies employed by anti-abortion campaigners. By failing to question the supposed science,  the ideology disguised as fact aired by the no side, we are in essence setting ourselves up for a similar fate to that of the Americans and the British. We will have no right to assume ourselves any better.

History has often been described as cyclical; in other words, that it has a way of repeating itself, the same issues manifesting themselves in disguised forms. Take the systematic effort to control women’s sexuality; to incarcerate or vilify those women who deviate from the social standards imposed by hegemonic forces. The 8th amendment is merely one manifestation of this. There have been countless others, from the notorious Magdalene Laundries to the widespread vilification and banning of contraception, alongside a general all-pervasive shaming of supposedly promiscuous behavior, the entirety of the blame being placed on the woman for deviating from her constructed role as the angel of the home; pure and untouched by sexual corruption.

Such instances as these which entail the coercion and vilification of women’s sexuality were reinforced and exacerbated by the same church-state partnership which has relentlessly sought to control and manipulate women’s bodily autonomy in order to subordinate and punish them for deviating from the Irish definition of true womanhood throughout history, namely the self-sacrificing, virgin-mary like definition of the female subject, one which has formed the very substance of what it meant and perhaps to some extent still means to be Irish; the same institution which purportedly claims to value life and to detest murder, but who not so long ago exploited their religion as a weapon with which to imprison women, while neglecting and thus becoming implicated in the premature death of thousands of supposedly “illegitimate” babies.

Moreover, I believe that analyzing the female body politic from a historical lens will shed light upon the current wave of resistance displayed by Irish society at the prospect of finally ridding our constitution of a law which has inflicted so much harm upon the rights of the women of Ireland, whose lives, and stories have been so perpetually disregarded, drowned out, stigmatized by a society which seems at times blind to their sufferings; a society that fails to make the connection between this current instance of female injustice and past Irish narratives defined by shame and reproductive coercion; narratives irrevocably inscribed upon our legacy as a Catholic nation. There is without doubt a lot of skeletons in that closet.


The Irish Constitution
“A Fascist Model”- Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington 

The Irish nationalist movement of the 1920s has often been represented through the allusive symbol of “mother Ireland”; a fictionalized, romantic representation of Ireland’s fight for freedom from British governance, but one which effectively reduced the female to a dehumanized metaphor, forcing her into the role of the passive, helpless victim in need of rescue; “the territory over which male power is exercised”(Meaney, Sex and the Nation).  This definition of Irish nationalism it has been argued  “entrenched in the idea of woman in stereotypical roles” (Mother Ireland, Clarke) as the female subject became inextricably intertwined with the fictionalized portrayal of suffering mother Ireland, a narrative whose danger lies in its perpetuation of a misleading, narrow definition of what it signified to be an Irish woman at the time.  It denied women the right to be recognized as equal citizens, free from the reductive labels of “mother” and “wife”; terms which essentially reduce the female subject to the  role of house wife, caregiver and  homemaker; the self-sacrificing, submissive female-other, utterly dependent upon patriarchal guidance for her survival. This constructed image of womanhood  followed  on into the 1930s,  the traditional, stereotypical conceptualizations of the female subject playing a progressively important role in the formation of Ireland’s national identity; a nation that sought to distinguish itself from the morally depraved British enemy by constructing a  generation of morally pure women. 

According to feminist scholar Clara Fischer, “vices, often presented as English in origin, were countered through evermore punitive means”. Women were  tasked with the overwhelming brunt of this moral duty to uphold their virtue and purity in order to reinforce Ireland’s rejection of supposed British vices. This vilification and perversion of English culture and its norms resonates with the current wave of supposed scientific “facts” displayed on no campaign posters, signs that portray British abortion statistics and norms as the ultimate the evil; the very antithesis of what we ought to deem morally permissible in an Irish context (e.g., “Don’t bring this to Ireland”) and that by succumbing to this we will become just as morally reprehensible as them.

Moreover, that very same constructed image of Irish womanhood which served to differentiate Irish identity from its British counterpart went on to form a central tenet of 1937 Irish constitution, becoming hammered into the very law of our state by a De Valera -run government hell bent on enforcing its command, its dominance in the wake of centuries of British rule. According to Catriona Beaumont, in spite of the female contribution to the irish nationalist cause in the 1920s, by 1937 “citizenship for women became defined in terms of their role as mothers and wives”. The constitution thus served to confirm the lost ideals of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, a document that provided hope of a brighter future for both men and women, one comprised of religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens, but one which was somehow lost in translation. 

The Irish patriarchy thus effectively persecuted its women as a means of fortifying its identity as an independent state, exploiting the sovereignty of women as a means of reinforcing its dominance, its newfound command over the Irish free state. This need for command paved the way for an Irish constitution borne out of “an anxiety regarding Ireland’s fitness for a masculine role of authority following years of oppression and helplessness, years of playing the effeminate role of the colonized”(Meaney). De Valera’s blatantly bigoted definition of womanhood functioned as a means of fulfilling or gratifying the need to coerce, to reinforce male hegemony and female oppression on a systematic and structural level.  By chaining women to the private sphere,  De Valera effectively denied them the right to equal citizenship, the right to be seen as individuals with value beyond the definitions of “mother” and “wife”. This is epitomized in article 41.2.1 which locates women in the private sphere,  the document comically alternating between the words wife and mother as if the two were somehow synonymous terms. This article served to reinforce women’s supposed natural, primary role as wives and mothers, downgrading them to the rank of secondary citizens by their male counterparts. It is therefore of little surprise that feminist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, sister of the late, great Francis Sheehy Skeffington, described the document as “a fascist model” while “the implications of weakness, domesticity, and social class provoked angry responses from militant female nationalists, professional women with university degrees, and working class women alike”(Lee 77).


Catholic social teaching and State legislation

“The church-state partnership that developed in Ireland from the 1920s provides the historical context for the increasingly repressive sexual moral climate” (Glynn, 27).

The shame-ridden atmosphere surrounding female sexuality, alongside the demeaning mother stereotypes attached to womanhood which defined much of 20th century discourse concerning Irish women set the scene for the establishment of the Eighth Amendment in 1983,  a bill that was passed at a time when the Catholic Church reigned over the majority of the internal affairs concerning Ireland, enforcing its rank as the primary governing body in society, one which sought to impose its ultra conservative and blatantly bigoted ideological systems of belief on an entire nation. Catholic social teaching has generally been regarded as the most far-reaching and persuasive influence “upon legislation and that it was thus inevitable that its definitions of a supposed true womanhood would become enshrined in the law of the land” (Beaumont, 564).  In this way religion has been been invariably weaponized as a means of justifying women’s unequal citizenship, fostering the emergence of  waves of mass female oppression, from the mother and baby homes established as a way to control female reproductive processes to the banning of birth contraception and most notably the criminalization of abortion, as a means of once again seeking to manipulate and govern and stigmatize the woman’s reproductive integrity.


The Magdalene Laundries

In the context of the 20th century Ireland, the church-state partnership exploited shame as its primary method of coercion, in order to ensure Irish women remained sexually obedient and lived up to the Irish myth of female purity and virtue. According to Fischer “women and girls who constituted threats to this identity were constructed as bringing shame onto themselves, their families, and their nation, and were therefore deemed to be deserving of punishment and confinement”(The Politics of Shame). This overpowering sense of scandal and shame attached to female acts of sexual deviance was all-pervasive, irreparably tarnishing a woman’s reputation in society, forcing them into a state of isolation, and often disownment by family and friends. This unmerited shame surrounding female acts of sexual deviance has I believe seeped into a supposedly modern Ireland in the form of the 8th amendment, the deeply ingrained beliefs surrounding sexual morality, beliefs which formed the blueprint of Ireland’s constructed identity, resurfacing with a mighty force. Shame has been exploited as the no-side’s chief weapon of persuasion, their graphic, propagandist campaign signs bearing testimony to this endeavor to impose a deep seated sense of guilt upon Irish women for exercising their right to bodily integrity and self determination. This social stigma paired with the legally criminal nature of abortion has served to merginalize the lived reality of women, to shame them into silence.

The Magdalene Laundries were established as a means of disposing of these disgraced, “fallen women”; those who failed to meet the benchmark of what was deemed sexually permissible conduct in the context of 20th century Ireland. These institutions sought to marginalize, to conceal the voice of the female subject; to deny her a platform on which to exercise her basic entitlement to bodily integrity while effectively perpetuating the stigma attached to unplanned parenthood, and female sexuality as a whole.  This resonates with the current staunch effort of anti-abortion campaigners to deny and marginalize the existence of abortion in the presence of the 8th amendment. The thousands of women who have made the journey to Britain to avail of an abortion have been ostracized, criminalized in just the same way that their ancestors were silenced, criminalized and unlawfully incarcerated for deviating from traditionalist conceptualizations of womanhood; for being a threat to the moral fibers of the nation. In both instances, these “fallen women” are sent away, rejected by a society that fails to respect its women’s alleged right to govern their own bodies.

Moreover, those women who became pregnant outside marriage during the early 20th century were framed as foolish, reckless girls incapable of controlling their own sexuality, a belief which ran in accordance with Catholic social teachings at the time. A similar assertion of mistrust has been imposed upon women seeking abortion rights in present day Ireland, a conviction founded on the same presumption, that women are incapable of making their own morally sound, self-determined decisions and that the state always knows best and that their bodily and reproductive decisions must be controlled by stringent social policies which deny the right to choice.

Furthermore, any woman who deviated from the sexual standards imposed by the church-state duo was was punished, literally incarcerated for engaging in behavior deemed sinful or in conflict with the pious reputation that it is their supposed duty as women to uphold.  The laundries served to contain this sexual perversion, to conceal the reality from civilized society,  its class of prisoners all represented through the same image of Mary Magdalene, the very antithesis of the glorified virgin-mary ideal. Moreover, State Legislation, when constructed through the lens of Catholic dogma, has posed a grave threat to the fundamental rights of women as Irish citizens, promoting a narrow, constructed definition of womanhood, one which seeks to contain and incarcerate women within the rigid confines of the dehumanized symbol of purity and passivity.

Some Final Thoughts…

Voting yes in the referendum therefore signifies more than the act of potentially altering a piece of legislation. It serves as a testimony of who we are as a nation, and how far we have come as a society in our endeavors to recompense for the irreparable damage we has inflicted upon women’s lives; treating them as second class citizens by depriving them of their individuality and their self determination; the dark shadow of shame forever looming over their existence, seeping into the very marrow of the irish understanding of the female body in the relentless battle to coerce female sexuality. We owe it to the hundreds and thousands of women whose citizenship has been denied of them. We must remain woke, to unite and fight for our rights; to fight for herstory.



Additional Resources:

ʺNotes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,ʺ  Professor Catherine Lavender,

From Cumann na nBan to de Valera’s Constitution: Rebel Women Betrayed

Vincent Browne: Let’s cease demanding more of women than we would dare demand of men

Sex and the Nation-Geraldine Meaney

Mother Ireland… The Myth Linda Clarke

The Moral Status of the Human Fetus: a Pro-Choice Approach-Bobbie Farsides

Sex And Nation- Women in Irish Culture and Politics by Gerardine Meaney

From Catholic Church dominance to social partnership promise and now economic crisis, little changes in Irish social policy

Fischer, Clara (2016)-Gender, nation, and the politics of shame: Magdalen laundries and the Institutionalization of Feminine Transgression in Modern Ireland

Women, Citizenship and Catholicism in the Irish free state, 1922-1948 Caitriona Beaumont

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