Immigration is a feminist issue. It will become more so in the years ahead. Irish women stand to gain disproportionately more than anyone else from ongoing immigration and should support the reduction of barriers to entering the country.

Immigration is now central to our societal balance.This is because of two of the biggest changes in Ireland in the past decade: the dramatic rise in the number of Irish women going out to work and the equally dramatic rise in the number of poor foreign women coming here to look after our children and clean our homes.

One can’t exist without the other, and it perplexes me that our female politicians in particular, do not protest more at the various bans, blockages and restrictions on the free movement of people that have become commonplace in recent years.Without Ireland’s army of immigrant nannies, childminders, babysitters and cleaners, the liberation of Irish women would be stuck in the “working mother quagmire” – the sticky, problematic and divisive area between being a good worker and a good mother.

Some may take umbrage at the idea that the “liberation” of Irish women to work and further their careers has been built on the “oppression” of other women, but unpalatable truths are a fact of life.The case remains that someone has to do what I’ve heard described as the “shit work” – shop for and prepare the hurried dinner,wipe up Johnny’s puke, clean the loo, change the sheets and remember to buy bin bags.

There are only so many hours in the day, and one certain path to divorce is for Mam to go out to work for 11 hours a day, commute and be expected to make perfect pea risotto with a smile in the evening. Something has to give on a practical level.

On a psychological level, immigrants may also be the essential gelling agent between many Irish women’s expectations and reality. Without poor foreign women to help, something deep in the society would also snap.

Due to rapid advances in education,young girls’ expectations have changed – and rightly so. Girls are told in school that they can have it all: a good career, fulfilling motherhood and a fine standard of living.

When I look back, it was totally different in the suburb where I was brought up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Less than 10 per cent of the mums went to work.The reality of suburban living was that most women’s expectations stopped at the front door.

Nearly everyone’s mother was at home at lunchtime and could be counted on to be on hand with plasters and TCP when we fell off the wall.Today, leased cars jam the same road every morning with young mothers trying to get out to work.Whether out of economic necessity, ambition, or whatever the reason, the guilt that the average working woman feels about not being the best mother runs deep.

More than 60 per cent of Irish women go out to work every day (which rises to 83 per cent for those in their 20s). It is government and European policy to increase this figure towards 70 per cent. (In fact, the ludicrously titled Lisbon Agenda that our EU presidency trumpets entails explicit targets for female participation as part of our overall economic aims.) At the same time as more young women are working,we are experiencing a mini-baby-boom, the echo of the original Irish baby boom that peaked in 1980.

For many young Irish mothers,the precise intersection of their two most passionate influences – their profound, almost physical love for their children and their fervent wish to make something of themselves beyond the hall door – is the exact spot where the foreign worker turns up for work each day.

This intricate relationship will become stronger over the coming years, for a variety of reasons. First, the number of educated women will increase relative to men. Second, there are two classes of women who make up the new workforce.

The first are the highly successful, professional women who now make up most of the graduates in law firms, accounting firms and in other professional services. In this group are a significant number of Irish women who are setting up their own businesses. Arguably, they have chosen to address the dilemma of working motherhood head on.

However, there is another distinct and much larger group of working mothers for whom long hours are not a choice but a necessity. In the recent past, the social status quo was entirely predicated on one wage being sufficient to keep the house going.This is no longer the case.

Probably the most significant social change affecting fathers in the past ten years has been the erosion in the real purchasing power of Dad’s wage. Mothers have to go out to work to keep the show on the road.Wages have not increased dramatically since the mid-1990s.

Wages have gone up by somewhere in the region of 50 per cent,while utility bills have gone up by nearly half that since 2000 alone, and house prices have risen by 300 per cent since 1996. In addition to – but quite apart from – the eclipse of the one-wage family,the other factor causing women to go out to work in such huge numbers is single parenthood.

OECD studies (Bosses and Babies 2003) have shown that this is the single biggest contributory factor to the impoverishment, both financially and educationally, of young Irish women.

Irish women are still paid less than Irish men. Many are in a poverty trap, and they fill an increasing number of minimum-wage positions. So the dilemma for the feminist movement is how do to get out of this cul-desac. Speaking as a feminist, this means that some extremely unpalatable issues have to be admitted.

The most crucial of these it to realise that the gains made by the liberation of women can only be solidified and enhanced by the labours of oppressed foreign women doing the shit jobs. Ironically, all through the ages, the standard of living of the aspirant class has been sustained by the work of an underclass – largely unseen, largely ignored and lar gely foreign. From ancient Rome to modern America and modern Ireland that is the case.

Let’s look forward a bit.

The government and the IDA keep telling us that we must move up the value chain to protect our prosperity from the likes of India and China.This means, in plain English, that we have to become better educated, smarter and more productive.This in turn implies more of us continuing to work long hours.

The more we move up the so-called value chain, the more Irish women who are now working out of necessity will graduate to working out of choice. However,the dilemma remains: who will look after the kids?

1970s feminist theory suggested that the men would share the burden equally with women, but the reality of working life for double-income families rules that out. (Obviously there are some exceptions, but this is the rule.)

If the greatest social advance of the last 30 years – the equality of women – is not to run aground under the pressures of childcare, expense and the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, something has to come to the rescue.That “something” is immigrant women.

In Ireland, the sad solution is an influx of poor, luckless women, fleeing persecution, rape, famine and war.These women,who have often left their own children behind, may have just completed an expensive and dangerous journey, but they are not met at the docks and airports by a powerful political lobby of Irish women intent on bettering the lot of their oppressed sisters.

On the contrary,they are received by a host of professional working women who need their children looked after, houses cleaned and loos scrubbed at the lowest price possible.

This is a huge political and intellectual challenge facing feminism in particular, and the left in general. How to square the circle when the pursuit of equality and the further enhancement of women is based on the probable exploitation of their oppressed sisters?

As Dylan, an icon for early feminism, sang, “The times, they are a-changin’.”


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