The Language of Families

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Irish voters will cast ballots in a nationwide referendum on March 8 – International Women’s Day – to determine how their country’s constitution depicts families and motherhood.

Advocates are seeking to alter the constitution in the largely Catholic, Western European nation to reflect more progressive perspectives. One of the two questions on the ballot would, if accepted, redefine families to include units where marriage is not necessarily required. The other is the ‘care amendment’. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is supporting both.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese, who supports a ‘yes’ vote on both questions, argued that the constitution didn’t recognize civil partnerships or families outside marriage. Opponents of this revision, like Sarah O’Reilly of the conservative Aontu political party, said it would sow chaos, wrote the, as the courts work to determine whether couples should be considered as friends, partners, or families.

The second referendum question on care would alter a provision dedicated to protecting a traditional vision of Irish motherhood.

“By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved,” states the Irish constitution at present, explained the Irish Examiner. “The State shall, therefore, endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Critics of this language see it as dangerously assigning a specific social function to women, wrote London South Bank University historian Caitriona Beaumont in the Conversation, noting that the Catholic Church’s influence in the Irish constitution runs deep. The document banned abortion until 2018, critics note.

Advocates would cut the reference to home duties and insert a new line: “The State recognizes that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision.”

These changes would simply remove the gender stipulations while still affording rights to mothers and women who care for family members, Irish Electoral Commission Justice Marie Baker told RTÉ.

Writing in the Guardian, Irish author Dearbhail McDonald noted that, while the constitution’s language is outdated, at least it acknowledges the humble but essential tasks that women perform in the home to keep society running. Irish officials would need to do more than change a few sentences, however, McDonald argued, to end misogyny and stereotypes in the country.

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