Mary Robinson on progress and modernity.
Topic: Women in Politics
Mary Robinson: When I graduated from Trinity College in Lowell, I was fortunate enough to go to the Harvard Law School at a particularly interesting time. I’m the class of ’68, so I was there in 1967-68. And that was the time when young Americans were questioning the war in Vietnam. They were interested in civil rights programs in the South. Martin Luther King was assassinated that year, and Robert Kennedy just after I graduated. And I came back to Ireland imbued with that sense that young people can make a difference. And I was elected to the Irish Senate very shortly afterwards. And the first measure . . . bill in the Parliament that I introduced at the age of 25 was a bill to legalize family planning. It seemed to me to be very simple because married women were not allowed to have the contraceptive pill unless they had cycle regulation problems. And it must have been the weather, but there was a phenomenon of many married women having cycle regulation problems. And also you couldn’t buy or sell the pill. It was a criminal offense. But if you could manage to get a pill . . . or sorry, a condom . . . then you could use a condom, but not buy or sell it. And I felt, “This is something that just needs to be straightened out.” And I completely underestimated the grave offense and concern that I caused to a whole range of people. I was denounced by bishops and priests from the pulpit. I was denounced by newspapers. I was an outcast for a while, and it was a very troubling experience. I kind of wobbled, because I had been used to being more or less reasonably admired and liked. I was doing well, and suddenly I was actually a hate figure and got hate mail. And it was very good for me, because I learned a lesson that if you really believe that something is important and it’s true, then stick to it. Go through with it. Pay the price. Be unpopular. Don’t be arrogant, but sometimes you have to stick to your principles.
I talked my way into being elected to the Senate for the university constituency by pointing out, “Why was there elderly male professors?” And so they said, “If you go forward, we’ll try and get you in.” And I learned that to make changes – particularly on issues of concern only to women . . . which weren’t the only issues, but they were important in Ireland at that time –you needed a critical mass of women in the Irish Senate. There were six out of the 60 when I was first elected. When we were 13, we began to be able to shape the agenda. And I’ve learned that women’s leadership has to be about women supporting other women trying to create those critical masses, and trying to work in a way that supports and empowers women.