I was twenty years old when I first voted in a general election. It was 1990 and I was a college student studying law at University College Dublin, Ireland. Unlike in the United States, the office of the Irish President is largely ceremonial. The President is the official head of state, but executive authority is vested with the cabinet, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, or Taoiseach. Accordingly, the Irish presidential election does not typically hold the same significance as it does in the U.S. In fact, prior to the 1990 election, there had only been six presidents, three of whom had served two terms, with five elections uncontested.
But 1990 was different. For the first time ever, the third smallest Irish political party, The Labour Party, put forward a candidate. It was also the first time ever that a woman ran for the presidency in Ireland. That woman was Mary Robinson, a barrister, academic and senator, and an outspoken advocate for human rights. In a country where the Catholic Church dictated the morals of society, Mary Robinson’s calls for removing the prohibition on divorce, eliminating the ban on contraception, and decriminalizing homosexuality were considered radical by many. Including my father.
Mary Robinson, 46 at the time, was running against two seasoned politicians, both more than a decade older than her, and both household names. My father would have chosen either candidate over the radical Mrs. Robinson with her progressive views. I was voting for her, and my father made it clear that he was not happy about it.
I needed to travel home to Limerick City to vote, and so on election day, I took the early train and was surprised to see my father at the station waiting for me. He barely said hello, and we sat in silence as we drove towards my old primary school where voting was in progress. After casting my vote, I went to visit my mother before having to head back to Dublin for classes. My father returned me to the train station without a word spoken between us.
Mary Robinson went on to the win that election and brought great dynamism to a position that was previously dull. She was a wonderful communicator and peace maker and was recognized by Brian Lenihan, her main opponent in the election, as being a better president than he ever could have been. After her seven year term as president, she went on to serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Even my father warmed to her.
My dad, born in 1925, was a man of devout faith, with a keen intellect, a strong work ethic, but very conservative in his views. One might think it would be difficult being raised as a girl in such a household. However, my father greatly valued academic success and did not discriminate in any manner between his sons and daughters. He expected that we would all work hard in school, and that we would all be academically accomplished. Growing up, I was not made to feel in any way inferior to my brothers, and I truly believed that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. The youngest of five, as a teenager, I drove my dad a little mad, stubbornly putting forth my views on a wide range of issues.
On that election day in 1990, my father could have chosen not to meet me at the station, not to drive me to the voting booth, not to return me to my train. But despite his ire at my choice of candidate, he recognized and respected my right to vote. He recognized that his daughter had a voice, and deep down, I have no doubt in my mind that he recognized that the possibility of having a woman as president, opened doors to me that were previously closed. And so he made the drive. The last time I spoke to my father, days prior to his sudden death from a stroke, was to tell him that I had passed the New York Bar. He was so proud – the proud father of a daughter he had raised to believe that the sky’s the limit. And now, twenty six years on from the occasion of me casting my first vote, I can’t help but feel pride that the great nation of the United States has nominated its first woman for the presidency. What took you so long, America?! Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has made history, and as women and girls, as sons, brothers, and fathers of women and girls, we should all be proud. Now go and vote.