I would like to thank everybody who has turned up here this evening to celebrate International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day is an important event every year. However, as this is the centenary celebration of International Women’s Day it has an added significance this year. The proposal for such a day as this was first proposed by Clara Zetkin at the International Conference of Working Women in 1910 and the first celebration took place on the 19th March 1911.
Over the past century this day has had a different emphasis at different times. During World War 1, for example, the emphasis was very much on the demand for an end to war. BREAD and PEACE was a famous slogan from that time. And it was also at that time that the present date of March 8th was established firmly as the date of International Women’s Day.
Sadly, International Women’s Day was not widely celebrated in the mid part of the last century in many countries.. And, as we can imagine, International Women’s Day was hardly celebrated at all in
Ireland through the 1930s 40s, 50s or indeed up to the beginning of the 1970s.
However, as the demand for civil rights in general and women’s rights in particular developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s then the celebration of International Women’s day was revived internationally and established in Ireland.
It is difficult now to believe that less than 40 years ago women were not entitled to equal pay for equal work, were not entitled to work in the Civil Service if they were married; were not entitled to sit on Juries, were not entitled to take out mortgages.
These were some of the early fights which the women’s movement and this party had to fight. WE did fight. And we won. Yes we know that equality has not been achieved – but we tore down the legal framework of oppression and we created an atmosphere where it was possible to demand equality without being pilloried and stoned in public.
The demand for civil rights – especially the control of marriage and fertility – was and is a difficult fight. We all remember the merchants of doom predicting the end of civilisation if women were allowed obtain barring orders – if violence and rape within marriage were made criminal offences – or if contraception was legalised. WE remember the League of Decency, the bishops’ conference, SPUC and its many formations opposing contraception.
The Fianna Fail government in the 1980s – a mere 20+ years ago – actually thought they were making progress when they allowed condoms for sale by prescription. WE must have been the only country in the world where you needed a prescription to buy an ounce of latex.
Now the emphasis of International Women’s Day has changed again. I think today it has a double focus.
The first focus is economic. Despite what the law says we know that over every sector of society there is continued discrimination against women. For example, the present concerted campaign by employers and the establishment against the minimum wage is clearly an attack on women. Women occupy the most part-time work, most casual work, and most badly paid work. That is why the poster which we launched for today clearly states “the struggle goes on.”
The second focus is social. We have seen in the last 12 months the Ryan Report and the Murphy Report on abuse being published. These reports were horrendous. The suffering which was heaped on young children was criminal and in any decent society those who carried out the abuse - and those who let it happen and then covered it up – would be in jail also. Young girls were the victims of some of this abuse.
But little attention is given to mothers whose children were virtually kidnapped because they were poor, because they were widowed, or because some busybody in authority decided that this woman lived an immoral life. In this regard we must also mention the prisoners in the Magdalene Laundries. These women deserve compensation and on this day let us reassert again the demand for full compensation.
Lastly let me say that we have seen recently court case where terrible abuse has taken place. And we have also seen in some of these cases that there are groups still active in our society who want to return to the 1950s. We have seen the same people – with different names – oppose the idea of a referendum on Children’s Rights. These people are well funded and well connected – we must be vigilant against them.
Let us remember that progress is a fragile plant – if we do not cherish it and defend it then the fight and the progress which we celebrate internationally today can slip away before our eyes.
Again - thank you all for being here.