History of Labour Women
History of Labour Women (Summary)
In 1971 the Labour Party was the first Irish political party to establish a women's section. Labour Women, or the Women's Advisory Committee, as it was known at the time, was set up to advise the Party Leader, Brendan Corish in relation to policies that impacted on women and their lives. The members of this first committee were nominated by the Party Leader.
In 1974 this changed when the Labour Women's National Council (LWNC) was established as an elected unit of the Party. The structure was representative, and designed to give the LWNC a mandate from Party members. Each constituency was entitled to nominate up to 5 delegates. The Officers and Executive Committee were elected at the AGM by these delegates, as well as an LWNC representative on the Administrative Council (the then ruling body of the Party).
The 1970s was a period of great demands for change from Irish women, and the LWNC played its part in ensuring that the Labour Party was to the fore in developing policies and legislation on equality in the home and at work, in reproductive rights, and rights within and outside marriage relationships. Women in the Labour Party were also becoming more active as elected representatives, on both the national and the local scene.
In 1980 the LWNC, helped by a grant from the European Community, developed a wide-ranging Equality Policy. This informed the policy and legislative framework of the Labour Party during that exciting decade and in to the 1990's. In 1981 Eileen Desmond
was appointed Minister for Health and Social Welfare, which she remained (with a short gap in 1982) until 1987.
The LWNC and its members were active in the Abortion and Divorce referenda of the 1980s. The Labour Party leader, Dick Spring, refused to endorse the holding of a "Pro-Life" referendum when the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail agreed to do so.
In 1991 the Party Conference passed a resolution creating the position of Constituency Women's Officer, with the dual purpose of encouraging the election of at least one woman to the Executive Committee of each Constituency Council and raising the profile of women's issues. It also committed the Party to the creation of the position of Women's Officer for the Party when finances allowed.
In the run-up to the general election of 1992, the Labour Party selected the highest ever number of women candidates, many activists in the LWNC. The programme for government included a commitment to further equality legislation and the creation of a new Department and Minister for Equality and Law Reform. After the election, the formation of the government resulted in Niamh Bhreathnach being appointed Minister for
Education, Joan Burton Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare and Eithne Fitzgerald as Minister of State in the Department of the Taoiseach. Altogether there were five women TDs and two Senators in the Labour Party representation.
Through the 1990s the LWNC continued to be active, both in supporting the Labour Party in opposition and in government and in urging it to deliver policies and programmes relevant to the needs of women. The Labour Party campaigned against the three abortion referendums introduced by Fianna Fail in 1992.
The LWNC was active in the successful campaign led by Mervyn Taylor, the Minister for Equality and Law Reform for the passing of the Referendum to allow divorce in 1995. During this period the Party adopted a 25% gender quota for the Executive Committee, General Council and other committees.
In 1997 the LWNC presented a new policy document for women at the Party Conference in Limerick. At the end of the decade, the Labour Party and Democratic Left united, with the LWNC receiving an injection of new members. In 1999, the leader of the party, Ruairi Quinn moved on the commitment made in 1991 by the creation of the post of Equality Officer, which included the duties of Women's Officer.
Coming into the early years of the 21st century, the LWNC examined its role within the Labour Party and society as a whole. It revised its constitution and changed its name to the more manageable Labour Women. Labour Women has continued its campaign for reproductive rights in the long aftermath of the abortion referendums of the 1980s and 1990s. It has also continued to work for improved representation of women in all areas of decision-making, including the political arena. The Labour Party leader, Pat Rabbitte, in 2005 established a party Commission on Women's Participation in the Labour Party which made a number of recommendations in its report.