Recently she spoke with me about the difficulties the role of UN High Commissioner presented, how Eleanor Roosevelt provided a life-changing moment, and why she has always been persuaded by those who fight for equality and justice through non-violent methods.
Was it your awareness of middle class privilege from an early age that inspired you to peruse a career that fought for justice in society?
Well, I came from a family that was privileged but not rich. My mother was a very warm, engaging, and open person, but she was also quite snobbish. She thought our family were great because we had a background of a colonial past, and plaques on the wall in the Protestant church in the town of Ballina, County Mayo, because the first Catholic in the family was my grandfather. The more she talked about this, the more I was rebelling the other way. For me, it was all about fairness.
You talk about reading Eleanor Roosevelt at any early age. What did you see in her worldview that inspired you?
I always loved people who were inspirational. Figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Davitt, Daniel O’Connell, and Martin Luther King. In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt made a famous speech on the tenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and she said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.” When I read this, I had a lightbulb moment and thought, I really want to be involved in this.
Working as a constitutional lawyer in Ireland in the '70s and '80s, you fought for women’s rights, but didn’t want to be labeled a feminist. Why not?
I was a young lawyer who wanted to change the position of women, so I didn’t want to be catagorized. When I was elected president of Ireland, many years later, I was a broad champion of women, happy to call myself a feminist. That is why in my inauguration speech in 1990, I thanked the women of Ireland, but I thanked them in Irish, calling them "Mná na hÉireann," which at that time was a very pejorative statement, almost like "sheila" is to women in Australia. But I made it a brand of honor somehow. I said I wanted women who were outside of history to be written into history.