Mary Robinson: the ‘woman who changed the Irish presidency forever’

Published 26th May 2016

The first female Irish president who proved that women could be ‘the hands that rocked the system’ as well as the ‘the hands that rocked the cradle’.

Mary Robinson’s views of the legal system were shaped by the optimism of the 1960s to use the law as an instrument of social change. As president of Ireland, who at one stage received 93% approval ratings, she advocated the legalisation of using contraceptives, removing the prohibition of divorce, the right of women to sit on juries, and for women to be able to continue work in the civil service after they married.

Aunt Ivy, her aunt, had innovated ‘spectacular’ things for girls education in India, which provided Mary with an inspirational role model. Ivy wrote her long letters about her work in Bombay and Bangalore, fuelling Mary with a desire to make a difference herself. Her great-aunt, a headmistress of several English schools, told stories of her arguments with the secretary of education, with a ‘great twinkle in her eye’. These influential female figures were icons to encourage Mary to realize her potential, whilst her father also supported and encouraged her to achieve.

Studying in Paris for a year, and doing a masters in law at Harvard changed everything for her. It opened her eyes to philosophy and feminism, intensifying the deep compulsion she felt to use the law to make a change. Having seen young people making a difference whilst abroad, she felt restless that in Ireland it was assumed that young people would wait their turn. Irish society was in many ways resistant to liberal change, meaning that Mary embarked on a ‘lonely path’ to change traditional assumptions about the role of women.

Spurred to action, she became a senator. She prioritised the legalization of family planning to encourage reproductive health, with the result that in 1970 Archbishop McQuaid proclaimed her a ‘curse upon our country’ in every church in his archdiocese. Mary found this challenging, being portrayed as ‘the devil incarnate’, yet it showed her that deep beliefs must come with the conviction to hold her ground strongly, and that criticism was unavoidable. Opening a dialogue on family planning, in her own words, ‘touched a raw nerve’. The prevailing prejudices against women occupying a public role in Ireland did not take long to materialize. A well-publicised outburst from Padraig Glynn mocked her for taking an interest in family matters only since she had become a mother. But Mary Robinson was interested in changing the lives of mothers throughout Ireland.

Women in the professions, journalists and lawyers, had a certain authority and a platform to articulate themselves, which was not available to women absent from the workplace. Mary consistently encouraged women with access to power to reach out and engage with women at grassroots level to collaborate and innovate a better working environment.

Men, Mary argues, also have a crucial role in creating a more female-friendly workplace. They need to write more about work-life balance, and take on homemaking and child rearing roles. She is frank about her own struggle to find a balance, particularly when women in power inherit male environments, with male hours of work and male ways of doing things. In her experience, women in leadership roles have a more participatory style, working in a more collaborative and nurturing way.

She received the Medal of Freedom in 2010 from President Obama and is one of the youngest members of the Elders, an exclusive world body that lends its wisdom to various global challenges.