Divorce .. Undermining the family? ( WSM pamphlet from 1st Divorce Referendum in 1986)


This pamphlet was produced by the Workers Solidarity Movement in the weeks before the 1986 referendum on whether or not to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. The vote was lost by a margin of almost 2:1, with 935,843 (63.48%) voting to keep the ban and 538,279 (36.52%) to remove it. A second referendum in 1995 saw the ban finally scrapped, with a result of 818,842 (50.28%) to 809,728 (49.72%).

Alone on the far left, the WSM was heavily involved in this campaign and had two members elected to the National Executive of the Divorce Action Group. At the time they described their motivation as being to “increase personal freedoms” and “challenge the power of the Catholic bishops”.  Read the full text of the pamphlet in the article.

Divorce .. Undermining the family? 

On June 3rd 1980, Noel Browne TD introduced a bill into the Dail for a referendum on divorce. when it came to a vote only one TD stood up - Noel Browne. All the `liberals' of Labour and Fine Gael behaved as if they were stuck to their seats with superglue. Despite having paper policies in favour of divorce hidden away in a back office somewhere they were scared to actually do anything. The bishops were watching them!

Marriages were breaking down, at that time 8,000 women were receiving deserted wives benefit. And that was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more men and women were stuck in relationships that had collapsed but felt unable to make a final break because of social attitudes and the fact that they didn't have enough money to live without the support of a `breadwinner'.

Because thousands of couples have now openly declared their position, because support for access to divorce has become increasingly visible the politicians have had a rethink. Maybe there are more votes in supporting a change than they had first thought. Maybe the bishops' power is not as strong as it was. And anyway the Coalition parties can hardly fight the next election on their economic record, so try a pinch of born-again liberalism.

Anarchists support those who want the freedom to legally end their marriages. We have no time for those mealy mouthed liberals who would allow divorce but only under strict conditions. Why should anyone have to prove to a court that they have been separated for at least five years? Marriage is entered into by signing a book in a church or registry office. Ending it should be just as simple. We support divorce at the request of one partner.

We are told this is out of the question as the children will suffer. This argument is an insult to those of even the meanest intelligence. Are we really to believe that children are better off in a situation of unhappiness, tension and sometimes downright cruelty? Would they not be better off with one loving parent than with two who find themselves in a situation of ongoing conflict.

The next argument thrown up by the Right is that it will weaken the family. It would be dishonest to deny this. The concept of till death us do part will be weakened, and with each weakening more people will ask a question much larger than why divorce?- that question will be why marriage?

Marriage means asking the church or the state to make your relationship official, why should we feel it necessary to get the sanction of a priest or a civil servant - are we not capable of ordering our own lives in a responsible manner?

We say that people should he able to live with whoever they wish without any fear of discrimination or secondary status. The only social obligation there should be on couples is to exercise responsibility and show love to any children they bring into the world.

This pamphlet does not attempt to put forward all the arguments for allowing divorce. That has been done elsewhere It sets out to address two issues that have emerged in the debate. Firstly, is getting the ban out of the constitution and enacting a law allowing divorce enough to allow an escape for those women whose marriages have died? Secondly, what is the family the Right have mobilised to defend? Are we tampering with a natural institution or are they wrong?

1. Escape

We all have the right to travel to India, the right to own an expensive yacht, the right to drive a Rolls Royce. Of course most of us will never go to India for our holidays, sail around the bay in a yacht or drive over to see friends in a Rolls Royce. But we have the right to do so. There is no law saying we can't.

We can't exercise these `rights' because we are not rich. They are meaningless. You might as well tell a starving man that he has the right to life because there' is no law ordering him to die.

So what will the right to divorce mean? Apart from having to wait at least five years there is the question of money. The cost will not be so great as to stop anyone going to court, after all they will have half a decade to save for it. But there is another cost.

Many women whose marriages are effectively finished stay with their husbands because they have no other alternative. They have to depend on him to provide rent, clothes, food for themselves and their children. Living for any length of time on social welfare payments is a living death. The money will get you by in terms of food and minor expenses. The problems start when the bigger bills come in or you have to buy dearer items like furniture. The payments are not enough.

If the woman can find a job it will usually be a low paid one. Unless she lives close to her mother or friends who are willing to mind her children while she goes out to work, she will end up paying a large chunk of her wages for child care. Back to square one,

OF course some women will have to make the break no matter what the cost. Others will be able to build a new life for themselves. But nobody can deny that there are many women who have no choice but to stay where they are. These women will not come in large numbers from Foxrock or Montonotte. Legislation, like anything else, reflects the class division in society. That is why there is no mention of providing the conditions whereby working class women can freely choose.

But what about alimony? Having the Courts grant a share of a £60,00O income is grand....but your ex-husband would have to be a businessman or a professional. What will alimony mean for the ex-wife of a worker on £130 a week or the ex-wife of unemployed man? Those who are doing alight at the moment will be looked after to at least some extent. But most working class women will be relegated to an existence on the poverty line.

Should we call for alimony payments anyway? Men should have to take some of the responsibility for their children but that is not what we are talking about. Alimony is not a payment towards looking after children. It is based on the notion that a woman must always be provided for by a man, it only ends when or if the woman remarries. It ends when the woman becomes the responsibility of another man, we reject this backward and sexist thinking.

Women should have the right to an independent life, they should not be forced into dependence. That is why the fight to make divorce a real option has to be connected to the fight for decent welfare payments, for an end to the barriers that prevent women working outside the home, for good child care facilities, for an end to all discrimination.

At the end of the day it is only in a society of equality that there can be a meaningful choice. Any change short of this, while very welcome, is only a half-measure.

2. The Family

Divorce which is a source of much hope to women who are unhappy in their married life, simultaneously frightens other women, particularly those who have been accustomed to considering their husband as the `provider', the sole support in life.

It is generally thought that the family is a `natural' and unchanging institution. Many people believe that the love, warmth and security family life provides are sufficient compensation for any disadvantages. It is often said that a bad family is better than a good institution.

This opinion has had great influence on the ruling class what passes for a Welfare State has been even more reluctant -3 provide good institutions than to provide help for families who need support. It is, of course, nonsense.

Nobody knows how many battered wives there are but we do know that the number of places in womens' aid refuges cannot satisfy the needs we do know about. Over half of all women murder victims in Britain are killed by the men they live with, we have no reason to suppose it is not the same here. Ask the ISPCC about child battering, ask the Rape crisis Centres about the recently uncovered incidence of incest.

The small family household can be a boiling cauldron of intense emotions focused on a few people. Hate as well as love, selfishness as well as caring, competition as well as sharing. And the lid is screwed down ever more tightly by the modern notions of privacy. As we have smaller households, less contact with other relatives and neighbours, and more indoor entertainment's, it is no wonder that family explosions can be so terrible.

This is not to say that all or even most families are teetering on the brink of self-destruction but it does raise the question of can we do better?

First of all let us be very clear that there is no `natural law' governing the family, nothing to say that things cannot change. Human history shows that, as the means of production and social order change, so does the way we relate to each other. The modern nuclear family is a relatively new relationship.

In primitive societies the level of technology was low and there was no surplus product to be taken by a non working section of society. There was an elementary division of labour. The men went out hunting while the women worked in the fields and looked after the children. In large part this seems to be due to the impossibility of leaving behind babies being breastfed or of bringing them on hunting expeditions.

In these societies group marriage was common. As a result it was difficult or impossible to know the father of any particular child. Such societies are called 'matriarchal' because the line of descent was acknowledged in terms of the mother.

With improvements in technology (the discovery of copper and bronze, the manufacture of tools, the development of new methods of raising crops and rearing cattle) it soon became possible for two arms to produce more than one mouth could consume. War and the capture of slaves became possible and worthwhile.

The economic role of the men in the tribe changed to a degree that it was no longer in keeping with their equal social status. As wealth increased it gave the man a more important status than the woman and it encouraged him to use this strengthened position to overthrow the traditional system of inheritance in favour of his children. But this was impossible as long as descent in terms of mothers prevailed.

A profound `change took place, probably spread over many centuries. The men gradually became the dominant sex, both economically and socially. Women became a commodity to be exchanged for weapons or cattle. With further changes in production, a very definite surplus was being produced. Those who had access to this, the ruling group among the men, sought to institutionalise their right to it as their `private property' and to leave part of it to their descendants.

But before they could do this they had to know who their descendants were. Hence the appearance of the first family, of monogamous marriage and of a sexual morality that stressed female chastity and which demanded virginity before marriage and faithfulness during it. Female adultery become a crime punishable by death because it allows doubts to arise as to the legitimacy of the descendants.

A whole philosophy and set of social customs then emerged to justify this and portray it as natural. The sacred texts of the Hindus limit womens access to freedom and to material belongings. Pythagoras reflected the view of ancient Greece when he said a good principle created good, order and man - and a bad principle created darkness, chaos and woman. The fathers of the Christian church soon put down the early hopes for emancipation that had led many women to martyrdom. Saint Paul states that man was not created for woman, but woman for man Saint John Chrysostome proclaims that among all wild beasts, none are as dangerous as women . According to Saint Thomas Aquinas woman is destined to live under man's domination and has no authority of her own right.

These attitudes were perpetuated by the dominant ideology of the Middle Ages and even into recent times. The poet Milton in `Paradise Lost' wrote that man was made for God and woman was made for man. Nietzsche calls her the warriors' pastime. Kaiser Wilhelm II defined a role for women (later echoed by the Nazis) as Kirche, Kuche, Kinder (Church, Kitchen, Children),

So we see that the origin of the family lies in the appropriation of the means of creating wealth by a small minority of rulers, and their need to pass it on to their descendants so that this wealth didn't become too dispersed. As in all societies the ideas of the dominant class became the dominant ideas in society as a whole.

Therefore there is no need for us to be afraid of the idea of change. The family is changing. There are more single parent families. For some this is a deliberate choice but for others it is anything but. Most single mothers are young women who, faced with no future apart from the dole, find that having a baby is the only adult occupation open to them. Because of social attitudes and financial pressures they find themselves worse off than married mothers, and many marry later as the only way to improve their position.

More couples live together without getting married than ever before, though this is not a new idea. For all the changes occurring the family survives. It continues to exist because it is the most convenient way of reproducing and caring for the workforce in a capitalist society. No government is going to spend millions on alternative care - community restaurants, laundries, nurseries, etc. - and if they did we can be sure they would be miserable and regimented institutions because they were planned from above for cost cutting and maintaining state control.

The family continues to exist for two main reasons. The first is that it's the way `private property' is transmitted within the ruling class. In Western capitalism it is done through inheritance. In state capitalist countries like Russia the privileges of the ruling bureaucracy are passed on to their children through better education and job opportunities. East or West we are told that you get where you are by individual effort but in each case the family reinforces existing class divisions.

Secondly, for all its faults, family life is a haven from a harsh world. It offers a sense of belonging, of security.

How can we live in way that is freeer and more equal? The family can only disappear when people choose to live differently. There can no question of banning it or `abolishing' it. We say this not because we believe this to be impossible (which it would be) but because if the alternative is better people will take it up, if it isn't they won't. We do not set ourselves up as dictators who will decide what is good for everyone else. Our task is to offer an alternative which can stand on its own merits.

Only an anarchist society, with its socialist plan of production, workers control and love of freedom, can offer a better way of life because it would respond to human needs instead of the race for profits.

Some people already feel they are happier outside a conventional marriage/family situation, and think that if enough other people followed their example a new lifestyle would replace the old one. That is alight for those who can afford it. It is much easier for people with well-paid professional jobs to run their lives differently, to pay for child care, to arrange their home life in a more satisfying way, and even afford to eat out more often rather than slave over a hot cooker. (It is also possible for people on the dole to do some of these things..if they don't have children and don't mind the limits set on what they can do by a lack of money). For the vast majority of working class people these alternatives are just not available.

That is why most of us can't opt out and try something new. That is why we say that a real choice is only possible within the context of an anarchist/socialist society.

And it is a choice that we propose. Those who wish to carry on in the old way will be free to do so, those who wish a change will have that possibility and those, probably the majority, who want a mix of the old and new will be able to avail of just that.

So what are these alternatives? We are not in the business of drawing up blueprints for the future, what actually happens will be decided by people in the post-revolutionary situation. But we cannot either make no proposals. We are not incapable of seeing possibilities.

At present the wives of the rich are free from household duties. Why should all women not enjoy the same freedom? There could be free, pleasant restaurants in every locality. This does not mean drab canteens serving steamed food at every meal, it means good food in nice surroundings. This would mean that cooking at home becomes just another option, something you do if you want to, and not a ritual chore.

Play groups and creches for children would be provided. Bright, fun filled places staffed by workers who have chosen to do that work because they enjoy it. Instead of mothers and children being cooped up in the house all the day, children can be with others of their own age in happy and safe surroundings. Mothers will have time to get out of the house and live their own lives. This would relieve much of the tension that exists in the home. today.

Women will be free to work outside the home without having to pay through the nose for babysitters and without having to constantly worry if their children are alright.

Does this mean that children will be forcibly taken away from their mothers? Of course not. what it does mean is that society will guarantee a decent life for all parents and child. It will offer all the facilities required for the well-being of both. But if a mother chooses to stay at home 24 hours a day with her child, society will also grant whatever support she needs. The same would apply to a father who wishes to take such a role in raising his child.

Because society will refuse to swallow the line that the individual family must be left isolated to manage as best it can without anymore than the most minimal outside aid, everything can change. Women will no longer fear being left without support if their husband deserts. There will be no more anxiety about the fate of the children.

Couples who decide to live together will no longer be governed by worry about social attitudes or money calculations This free union will be based only on love and the desire to make each other happy.

Anarchism stands for a new relationship between the sexes. In place of legal marriage based on the secondary status of women we shall see the free union of two individuals, equal in their rights and obligations fortified by love and mutual respect. This new way for people to relate to each other will give to humanity, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, all the joys of so-called free love, joys which under capitalism rarely exist outside the covers of the story book.

Published May 1986, introduction text from the Irish Anarchist history site from where you can download a PDF image of the original pamphlet

  • Multimedia: PDF