Issue 91 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2001 Copyright © International Socialism
Until the last few years of the 1990s Ireland had the reputation of being the most sexually repressed country in Europe, where women were second class citizens and the Catholic church ruled virtually unchallenged. But things have changed fast. A national survey in 1973-1974 found that three out of four people thought sex outside marriage was always wrong. A survey in 1997 found that 21 to 24 year olds had, on average, had 13 different sexual partners.1 In 1990 Dublin’s Virgin Megastore was fined £500 for selling condoms. In 1999 the Dublin government spent £500,000 promoting the use of condoms.2 While Gordon Brown felt it necessary to get married to enhance his chances of becoming prime minister in Britain, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, lives openly with his (unmarried) partner who accompanies him on state visits as ‘first lady’.
The point of this article is to argue that these changes have come about not, as media commentators would have it, because of EU-inspired liberalisation nor, as feminists would have it, solely because of ‘the women’s movement’. Rather change has been generated mainly by shifts in patterns of production. In short, it is changes in capitalism that have led to changes in women’s lives, the family and attitudes to sex and sexuality.
Marxists argue that women’s oppression is rooted in our role in the reproduction of the next generation of workers. The way reproduction is organised depends on the way production is organised–women’s oppression can be ended only by overthrowing capitalism and bringing production under workers’ control.3 The story of Ireland in the last 20 years shows there is nothing abstract about this analysis. It also shows the intervention of socialists can be crucial in ensuring progress.
Despite Ireland being synonymous with sexual repression, there was never anything ‘Irish’ or inevitable about it. The reason women’s rights were so lacking can be traced to changes in the form of the family, and to the way reproduction was organised from the middle of the 19th century.