Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland.

With preparations in full swing for the U.S. presidential elections in 2016 and with Hillary Clinton aiming to become the first woman to hold the title of Leader of the Free World I thought I would take a look at some of the other women who have played a large role in politics throughout the world. This week I’m going to look at the career of Ireland’s first female president Mary Robinson.

Mary Robinson studied law in Trinity College Dublin and at Harvard. A staunch advocate for women’s rights in Ireland at a time when the Catholic Church was the deciding influence over much of the country, she chose to enter the political world in order to enact change. In 1969 she was elected to Ireland’s senate running as an independent candidate. In a famous speech in Trinity College she called for the legalising of divorce and contraception as well as the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

In the mid 1970s she joined the Labour Party, who shared many of her liberal views. She served in the Senate until the late 1980s when many of the things that she had fought for had been enacted (for example, the legalising of contraception as well as allowing women to serve on juries). In 1989 the Labour Party nominated her to represent them in the upcoming presidential election, and in doing so she became the first woman to run for the post of president of Ireland. Her main rival in the campaign was Brian Lenihan, from the ruling Fianna Fáil party. It was an ugly campaign with subtle–and not-so-subtle–sexism clear throughout. It was, in fact, sexist comments from a friend of Lenihan relating to Robinson’s family that actually helped her surge in the polls, and in 1990 she was inaugurated as the first female president of Ireland.

Traditionally in Ireland, the role of president was a largely ornamental one, with many former Prime Ministers and Ministers taking up the office. Robinson changed that, however; she helped with the countries relationship with England by becoming the first Irish President to meet with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. She also took many trips to Northern Ireland, meeting with politicians from every political party as well as signing into law the bill that decriminalised homosexuality, something she had fought for throughout her career. Perhaps the most important trip she took as President was to Rwanda in 1994, following the county’s civil war. During a press conference she became visibly emotional with her trip bringing international attention to those suffering.

In 1997 she resigned as President and took up the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. During her reign she was critical of the Irish system for dealing with non-EU immigrants as well as the use of the death penalty in the United States. She also dealt with the issue of racism internationally, and claimed that the U.S. was violating human rights with the various interrogation methods soldiers used on detainees during their war on terror. She chaired the 2001 World Conference against Racism with the event ultimately forcing her to resign her post due to the unhappiness of several countries with the published wording.

Today she runs the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice which focuses on the impact that climate change is having on the poorest counties, which do not contribute as much to climate change but are suffering the most from it.

-Michelle O’Brien
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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