March 8, 2023 - 11:49am

The Irish papers are full of news that a referendum will be set this coming November on Article 41.2 in the Irish constitution. This contains a recognition that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the State shall therefore “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

The overwhelming consensus from Ireland’s liberal feminist public voices is that this framing is discriminatory against women, and that it’s in women’s interests for it to be amended. Seanad Spokesperson on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Erin McGreehan called the existing phrasing “innately biased against women”, arguing that the sex-specific language in the Irish constitution needs to be amended to recognise “the economic value of unpaid care” in language that’s “gender-neutral”.

From the perspective of women who have careers, this all sounds great. But it left me wondering: what about all the mothers who have jobs, rather than careers?

I’m relatively unusual, I suppose. As a graduate middle-class woman, I arrived at motherhood in my mid-thirties having been rubbish at every professional career I’d tried my hand at up to that point. This meant that when the usual period of maternity leave came to an end, and my NCT peers mostly went back to work, I couldn’t think of any professional activity I wanted to do keenly enough to warrant spending all day away from my baby.

In this my situation more closely paralleled the great many mothers who work not because they like it and excel at some high-flying occupation, but rather because it’s either that or fall behind on rent. I grew up with the belief that being a stay-at-home mum was infra dig; but when I got there, I was surprised to discover that being in a position where stay-at-home motherhood is an option at all is not a mark of oppression but unusual economic privilege. And for those whose financial situation means they don’t have that privilege, going back to work doesn’t always mean returning to an exciting, varied and challenging professional career. It’s a whole different ball game sending your six-month-old baby to nursery and missing out on milestones so you can put packets through a scanner all day.

I dare say some mothers whose employment prospects mean a job rather than a career might appreciate constitutional protection and recognition for the many ways they might make a valuable contribution to the wider social fabric outside the market. But laws don’t get made or amended by mothers with jobs.

This creates a structural blind spot in the politics of motherhood. For mothers with careers face a much tougher choice. If a woman has worked hard at and enjoys her professional life, swapping that indefinitely for Monkey Music and milk sick on her cardigan may feel less appealing, however visceral your bond with your baby. From that perspective, I can see how a constitutional protection for mothers from being pressured into the workplace would just look like bias against women. And I can see how it might seem like making it ‘gender-neutral’ is generally in women’s interests. Indeed, those mothers who get anywhere near the levers of power are far more likely to come from this class.

Meanwhile, this elite feminist drive to abolish every cultural, political or legal recognition of sex asymmetry lands differently further down the socio-economic scale. Here, Article 41.2 reads more like sex-specific protection against the neoliberal understanding of people as sexless units of economic production: a profoundly humane provision for the unique nature of mothering, and now vanishingly rare in developed-world legislation.

This referendum proposes, in practice, to strip protections from less privileged mothers that serve, in however small a way, to shield them from the brutal, sex-indifferent exigencies of the market. Doing so may well serve the interests and priorities of elite women. But it should not be understood as ‘feminist’ save in the most class-blind sense.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.