Constitutions and gender

“My interest in constitution-making has focused on gender – specifically, on how the conceptualisation, design and operation of constitutions affect women’s chances of achieving equality and agency.”

Professor Helen Irving

Professor Helen Irving has long been interested in how constitutions are made – in the ideas that inspire their design and in their framers’ expectations about how they will work in practice.

She has written extensively on the making of the Australian Constitution and has a long-standing primary research interest in the use of history in constitutional interpretation.

“Most recently, I have been looking at the ways in which women are included, or excluded, from constitutional citizenship,” says Professor Irving.

“This has involved multi-country research on past laws that stripped citizenship from married women.

“These women became aliens in their own country. When it is claimed, today, that citizenship-stripping was rare in the past, it is obvious that people do not know that millions of women around the world, including in Australia, lost their citizenship for something as inoffensive as marriage.”

Professor Irving will attend the European University Institute in Florence, through a visiting Fernand Braudel Senior Fellowship, to work on a project on theories of constitutional citizenship.

She believes that the current debate about whether citizenship should be stripped from individuals on the grounds of ’public good’ or character (specifically regarding terrorist proclivities or acts) has been particularly concerning.

“While it challenges our thinking about citizenship, and about the legitimate bounds of governmental power and the law, it also reveals widespread ignorance about the history of citizenship stripping – about the fact that women, until relatively recently, were stripped of their citizenship for no other reason than marrying a foreign man.

“However poorly informed the debate happens to be, and whatever the motivation of governments, current citizenship-stripping proposals offer an opportunity for a very valuable examination of the nature of citizenship as a legal status and for an understanding of the consequences of citizenship loss.”

Professor Irving says that while Sydney Law School must lay the foundations for its students’ entry into the legal profession, it should also see its primary research role as deepening and expanding intellectual and scholarly knowledge and inquiry.

“Sydney Law School, as Australia’s oldest law school, in one of Australia’s most esteemed universities, must have the development and expansion of deep-seated legal research as its core purpose,” she says.

“Internationally, we should be engaging with law schools in other countries as well as with international agencies; sharing knowledge, bringing our particular cosmopolitan perspective and helping find original answers to common problems.”