Acceptance of Award from the Irish-American Partnership
Nollaig na mBan, The University Club, Friday, 6th January 2017
Address by Ambassador Anne Anderson
I feel extraordinarily privileged to accept this award this morning. As many of you will know from my remarks at previous Nollaig na mBan breakfasts, I am a big admirer of the work of the Irish American Partnership. It is an organisation with such a clear sense of mission and purpose. The grants are often modest in size but they are very focused and targeted and can be transformative in their impact. I always look forward to the quarterly activity reports: they are full of interest and substance, and Mary Sugrue does a terrific job.
It is especially meaningful for me that Melanne Verveer agreed to do the introduction this morning. Melanne is one of the truly great champions of the rights of women and girls – someone who genuinely makes a difference. During my last posting, as Ambassador to the UN in New York, I saw Melanne’s work on the global stage. During my current posting, I have witnessed her work in Georgetown and have been continually impressed with her passion, her skills, her determination. She is quite simply indomitable. Thank you Melanne, from all of us.
Nollaig na mBan is a day that has a great resonance for me, one of these touchstone days that triggers a lot of nostalgia and a lot of emotion. It’s a day that comes freighted with childhood memories; it’s also a kind of stock taking day, a day to reflect on the role of women, the progress and the challenges. I would like this morning to offer a few thoughts, some of them personal, some of them ranging somewhat more broadly.
To begin on a very personal note. When Mary initially contacted me about this honour, I hadn’t known or hadn’t remembered, that it came with an award of $10,000 to be devoted to a charitable cause of one’s choice in Ireland. While I was still reflecting on an appropriate charity, Mary came up with the idea of a poetry initiative which would have students in Ireland attend workshops with established poets, especially on the themes of Immigration and the Diaspora. I was immensely grateful for the idea, and immediately said yes.
The idea of the award brought together a number of important things for me, including my own love and valuing of poetry, and the concern with immigration which is such an important focus of my work here. But there was also a particular aptness about the association with Nollaig na mBan, because this is a day when many of us remember our mothers, who in a first and fundamental way shaped our sense of what it is to be female.
And her love of poetry was part of what defined my mother. She was born Margaret Griffin, in 1921, the youngest of nine children on a small subsistence farm in Co. Limerick. There was no money for secondary education, let alone university, and she left school at 15 to work as a post office clerk. But while still in her teens and early 20s, living away from home in what were then known as ‘digs’ – fairly basic boarding houses - in small towns in Ireland, she would go to the local library at night and copy out in copper plate writing the works of some of the great classic poets – Wordsworth, Byron, and others. Then she would come back to her room and learn them off by heart, just for the sheer beauty of the language. I still have one of her poetry notebooks from those days, and I cherish it.
And this was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, the reciting and reading aloud of these poems by my mother. It was this which first attuned my ears to the cadence of language and led to poetry becoming my lifelong bolt-hole. As so often, Seamus Heaney found the perfect, unexpected word: “The Redress of Poetry”. At a time of such upheaval and suffering and cruelty in the world, we need this ‘redress’ more than ever.
If I speak about my mother, it’s partly to pay homage to her, and to let you know the personal significance of this award for me, but it’s also to honour the generations of Irish women like her who have gone before us. Women full of intelligence, and capacity and longing, but whose horizons and ambitions were limited by the double constraints of class and gender. My mother lived out her life in Ireland, but throughout my time here in the US I have repeatedly and poignantly been reminded of the generations of Irish women who arrived in this country as immigrants. They came and worked as domestics, in garment factories, in mills, in nursing wards, as homemakers – women whose stories have been insufficiently told, whose contributions have been insufficiently recognised.
When, last October, I went to Butte – the legendary Irish mining town in Montana – I was presented by local women with a beautiful book entitled “Motherlode”. It’s a book which bears witness to the richly textured lives and histories of women in that mining town. I would suggest that Nollaig na mBan is a day to remind ourselves of the motherlode – that rich vein of female experience – which is at the heart of the Irish American story.
I mentioned that, as well as looking back, I also see Nollag na mBan as a day of audit or stocktaking. As a sort of gendered version of New Year’s Day, it’s a time to benchmark how women are faring in the world and to assess one’s own personal challenges in engaging with these realities.
I am very conscious that I make that audit or assessment from a place of immense privilege. My whole adult life has been spent in the Irish Foreign Service, and this is my fifth posting as Ambassador. And what tremendously satisfying posts they have been: as Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, to the European Union, to France, to the UN in New York, and now here in DC.
I have said before that if I ever write my memoir it will be very opposite of a “misery memoir” - it will be a celebration of over 40 years of the privilege of serving my country. But to acknowledge and celebrate all the privilege and opportunity does not mean airbrushing the difficulties, the frustrations, the challenges.
I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in late ’72, and in those early years, we were such a small minority of women diplomats in the Irish Foreign Service. We didn’t have role models, or mentors, to help us find a path. The “marriage ban” had existed since the foundation of the State, and was swept away only when Ireland joined the then EEC on 1 January 1973. The ‘ban’ meant that the day you married was the day you exited – or, more accurately, were ejected from - the civil service, public service, Foreign Service.
I got married in 1974, within a couple of years of the abolition of the marriage ban. And so it happened that, when I was posted to Geneva in 1976, I was the first married women diplomat to be posted abroad in the history of the service. In each of the five postings as Ambassador, I was the first Irish woman to hold that post. When I went to Brussels in 2001, I was the first woman Ambassador to the European Union from any member State of the Union – this over fifty years after the foundation of the Union.
Being the first brings a considerable ambivalence. Yes, it’s good to have the minor footnote in history, or to know you have made another small dent in that glass ceiling. But you don’t always relish having to be the one to do the campaigning and crusading. I honestly don’t know how much I was pioneer by temperament and how much by circumstances. I didn’t consciously set out to be a crusader, it was just that my sense of justice kept being affronted.
I was involved in quite a few battles in those early years: for equal allowances, for equal rental accommodation, for equal consideration for postings abroad. They weren’t always easy or comfortable battles to fight. And years later, as I sat around a tableful of men in Brussels, and presided over 24 male Ambassadors during the Irish Presidency in 2004, I sometimes wondered how it would feel for any one of them if the gender ratio was reversed. Like women everywhere, I often found myself projecting forward to a post gender professional world: where equality would be so natural, so taken for granted, that no-one would be doing the gender tally around the table. But that world still seems very far away.
There have been immense changes since my early years in the Department. We now have a management team that is strongly committed to gender equality. We have women Ambassadors in countries such as France, Japan, Israel, Mexico, and many more; in fact, almost 30% of our heads of mission are female. There is a gender-consciousness in our training, in our assignments, in our promotion policy.
But there is still a significant distance to travel. Despite the progress, our structures remain very pyramidical; there is one telling statistic: at our most senior level in the Department, we are still 85% male and 15% female.
Moving beyond the world of Irish diplomacy, Nollaig na mBan is also an opportunity for a broader audit.
When I look at Ireland through a gender prism over the past year, there is a lot to feel good about. Just to enumerate a few of those developments. At our general election in February, gender quotas for candidates were applied for the first time and the percentage of women in our lower House of Parliament, the Dáil, went from 15% to 22%. Our commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising very consciously brought women back into the frame, rescuing them from the “pervasive invisibility” which had been their lot in earlier narratives of 1916. There was an important grassroots movement in the arts: “Waking the Feminists”, and there was also a ground-breaking study of women in academia, which resulted in new targets, designed to secure a more equal place for women in the hierarchy of third level institutions.
Here in the US, there is the fact that for the first time there was a woman candidate from one of the major political parties for election to President. And we saw the strength of her support in the popular vote.
But of course one can upend all of that, and look through the other end of the telescope. In Ireland, the centenary commemorations reminded us of the extent to which the feminist vision which many of the 1916 activists shared (some men as well as women) was sidelined, and even betrayed, over subsequent decades. The fact that, in 2016, only 22% of the Dáil should be female might seem more shocking than reassuring. It is equally disappointing that there is still embedded sexism in the arts and academic worlds, which triggered the developments I mentioned.
In America, there is of course the inescapable fact that the electorate chose not to have a woman President. One could express that choice differently, and it is important not to overstate things – this was obviously a complicated election, with multiple factors at play, and the analysts will argue for a long time about the relative weight to be attributed to different factors. But, however you slice and dice the results, I think that few objective analysts will dispute that sexism was at least to some degree a factor.
There was another important election towards the end of last year, also with a global impact. In October 2016, Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal, was elected as Secretary General of the United Nations. Mr. Guterres is widely admired and respected, and will be a good Secretary General in these turbulent times. But in its 70 year history, the United Nations has never had a woman Secretary General, and there was a strong tide of support for the view that this time it should be a woman. There were a number of women candidates of substance, including Foreign Ministers and heads of UN agencies, but ultimately, Mr. Guterres was preferred.
Of course, we all fully respect electoral outcomes and move forward, and we look forward to working with President-elect Trump and Secretary General Guterres. But it doesn’t in any way take from the legitimacy of the outcomes to conduct some thought experiments. In the US election, let us imagine that the genders of the two main candidates had ben swapped but everything else stayed the same – experience, temperament, character; do we think that the outcome would have remained the same? In the UN election, if there had been an unbroken succession of eight female Secretaries General since the foundation of the organisation, and finally in 2016, there were a number of highly qualified male candidates, would we still have emerged with the 9th female Secretary General this time around?
I leave the answers to these questions to each of you but I think it is salutary, as we do our stocktaking, to inject some of these hypotheses into our discussion. Let me just say, in summary, that while my Nollaig na mBan audit indeed finds some causes for satisfaction, there is also every incentive to continue the long march.
And If I might conclude on a personal note. At the end of my four year term in July of this year, I will be retiring from the Foreign Service and moving on to whatever the next phase might be – as yet, undecided. But there is one thing I do know: you don’t retire from being a woman, you don’t retire from having a sense of justice, and you don’t retire from having a vision for what a more equal world would look like.
To borrow again a phrase from Seamus Heaney - the title of one of his last collections - we are all part of a “human chain”. And today, one thinks particularly of the female chain. I spoke earlier about how Nollaig na mBan puts me in mind of my mother and the generations that have gone before, and of course that chain stretches on to our daughters and those who will follow us. And it’s not just generational – it is also a global chain, linking us with women in other parts of the world – in other countries: Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, to name but a few – for whom our lives are ones of unimaginable privilege and whose lives and realities and burdens must always be part of our consciousness.
And so, Nollaig na mBan will always be for me a day for remembering and a day for resolve – trying, as we all do, to fulfil the obligation to remain a strong, weight-bearing link on that precious human chain. But, whatever comes next, because of this award, today will certainly stand out in my memory as one of the happiest and most affirming celebrations of Nollaig na mBan – thank you to Mary and the Irish American Partnership, and thank you all for being here.