On the march – John Mulqueen on the Irish Housewives Association

Inevitably, in the early years of the Cold War, Catholic zealots targeted it as an ‘atheistic, communist’ front

A the March 8th referendums approach, we will hear more on the removal of de Valera’s cherished ideal of women staying in the home, which he inserted into the 1937 Constitution.

Some of those who argued for women’s equality at the time demonstrated that women should be active in the political arena. There was no shortage of issues that needed urgent attention in de Valera’s Ireland.

During the second World War, 90,000 families in Dublin lived in one-room tenements with no adequate water supply. Ireland had the worst tuberculosis (TB) problem in Europe, very high infant mortality, and a high maternal mortality rate. Children suffered from malnutrition with little hope of medical care.

To make things worse in neutral Ireland, in the early years of the war, food and fuel became increasingly difficult to obtain when the prices of imported goods soared. The freezing of wages increased the pressure on poorer families. However, those who could afford it hoarded luxury items – sacks of white flour and sugar, and chests of tea.

Enter Hilda Tweedy and Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, who submitted a petition to the government before budget day in May 1941 that called for action to ensure fair prices for consumers and producers, and equitable distribution of essential goods.

In other words, they wanted to tackle the “black market” in sought-after commodities. The newspapers welcomed this initiative and called it the “Housewives’ Petition”.

The publicity-conscious organisers of the petition decided to exploit this attention from the press and called their new group the Irish Housewives Committee, to the chagrin of the veteran feminist Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, who pointed out the obvious: “You are not married to the house.” The “housewives” marched through Dublin with posters, literally spelling out their aims. “The children must be fed.” “War on TB.” “Clean food.” Schools, doctors, TDs and councillors were lobbied to introduce the feeding of school children with one hot meal and a glass of milk daily. But they encountered a major obstacle in the shape of the Catholic Church – school meals would break up the “sanctity of the home”.

The committee could claim some success in championing the rights of the consumer when rationing was introduced in 1942.

Tea now became the most prized commodity of all, while coffee, far less popular than it is now, was plentiful.

At first, the organisation, which held its inaugural meeting in the (Quaker) Friends House in Dublin, had, to quote Tweedy, an “overwhelmingly Protestant” membership.

She grew up in Athlone, where her father was the Church of Ireland rector, and studied at Alexandra College in Dublin. Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, daughter in law of Hanna, was a graduate of the Sorbonne, and had taught French in Trinity College for two years when her husband, Owen, was being treated for TB.

After the war, the Irish Housewives Association, as it was now known, expanded its advocacy to include women’s, and children’s, rights.

It won recognition from trade unions and other bodies in the Lower Prices Council as an energetic and focused lobby group whose demands were substantiated by carefully-prepared research. Inevitably, in the early years of the Cold War, Catholic zealots targeted it as an “atheistic, communist” front. The association took a principled stand during Noël Browne’s bid to introduce his “mother and child” welfare reform, against the wishes of the Catholic Church, the medical profession, and the minister for health’s own colleagues in cabinet. At a public meeting to support Browne in College Green, the (non-atheistic) hecklers broke into “Faith of Our Fathers” every time Tweedy and her colleagues tried to speak.

Not everyone, however, was browbeaten into following the church line in political affairs. The voters in Dublin delivered their verdict on Browne following the collapse of the inter-party government in 1951. Browne, who had taken the necessary measures to eradicate TB as a mass killer, polled well and was re-elected to the Dáil. In contrast, his former party leader, Seán MacBride, lost two-thirds of his vote, and scraped in on the final count – he had topped the poll three years earlier.

The association weathered its Cold War challenges and continued to raise public awareness of women’s rights and influence government consumer policy. Hilda Tweedy became chair of the ad hoc committee that was responsible for the formation of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1970, and later chaired the Council for the Status of Women. Trinity College awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1990. Trinity did the same for Andrée Sheehy Skeffington two years later following the publication of Skeff, her widely-praised biography of Owen – a senator, who, in the words of the cathaoirleach of the Seanad, “was never dismayed if his point of view was a minority one”. A tribute that could also be paid to the founders of the Irish Housewives Association.

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