Thursday, November 16, 2017

What might the first female American President look like?

Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in last year’s American presidential election came as a huge shock to many feminists both in the US and beyond. Like many around the world, I found myself consumed by this fascinating and controversial race. Had Hillary been elected, she would have been the first female President of the US. 

Despite the disappointment that some liberals and feminists felt at the result, it seems to be largely taken for granted among women I meet that there will be a female (liberal or conservative) in the White House someday. This has led me to wonder what kind of future female President would prove a good role model for women both in America and around the world. 

As an Irish person who, before August of this year, had never been to the US, I cannot claim to be an expert in American politics. My perspective therefore is merely that of a respectful “outsider looking in,” and is based on experience and knowledge of my own country, Ireland.

In Ireland we can claim some pedigree when it comes to women Presidents. Two of our last three Presidents have been females, Mary Robinson (1990-97) and Mary McAleese (1997-2011). Of course, unlike America, Ireland is no superpower. Our international profile could never equal that of the US. Irish Government also works differently to here. Our Presidents are more figureheads than politicians, with the political role kept separate and played by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This is very different to America where the President combines both the figurehead and political functions. All this makes comparisons between the two offices neither easy nor always reasonable.

Nevertheless, I feel that Ireland’s two past female Presidents merit at least some consideration as good role models for feminists and any future, aspiring American woman President. Both Robinson and McAleese played pivotal roles in transforming Ireland into a more liberal, peaceful and inclusive society. In their own different ways, too, each showed examples of compassion, courage and sincerity that, to my mind, ought to resonate with all women. 

On a personal level, I initially came to admire Robinson because she was the first Head of State of any country to visit my own native West Belfast. This was an area whose people had been devastated by the Irish ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to mid-90s and which had become deeply embittered by decades-long marginalization and repression. In the teeth of establishment outrage, Robinson went into West Belfast and publicly praised the spirit of its long suffering community. She also, on her visit, met with and shook hands with the community’s then infamous elected representative, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. It was a vital and key first step in the Irish peace process.

Likewise, Robinson challenged traditional Irish nationalist shibboleths by becoming the first Irish President both to visit the United Kingdom and to meet, at Buckingham Palace, a British monarch, the present Queen Elizabeth II. On foot of this, she welcomed senior members of the British royal family, most notably the Prince of Wales, to her official residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin. These were bold moves that dramatically changed the face of existing Anglo-Irish relations.

For me, though, the most compelling example Robinson gave us of a great female Presidential role model came in 1992. She was one of the first world leaders, at that time, to highlight publicly the horrors of famine and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda. After personally visiting, over 3 days, thousands of sick and dying refugees across the region, a visibly tearful and shaken Irish woman President stood before the press cameras and famously declared:- 

“I’m sorry that I cannot be entirely calm speaking to you, because I have such a sense of what the world must take responsibility for.”

Her words and demeanour on this occasion shamed the West into action and led to the first concerted international humanitarian response to the Somalian and Rwandan crises.

Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, during her time in office, worked tirelessly to address issues of sectarianism and violence in the north of Ireland through an openly declared policy of “building bridges”. Picking up the mantle of her predecessor, McAleese invited Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to make a first ever state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 – a move that initially discomfited some Irish Republicans but ultimately helped open a new door - not necessarily of agreement - but certainly respect and understanding between them and the British Royal Family. 

Early in her Presidency, McAleese also incurred the wrath of the then powerful, male dominated Catholic hierarchy in Ireland by accepting communion in an Anglican church. Although a devout Catholic herself, McAleese saw the move in the context of Ireland’s long history of religious conflict. For her, respecting and representing Irish people of different religious traditions was a core, and hugely important, responsibility of her office. 

It was a similar sense of duty that impelled McAleese, as President, to call for the complete deconstruction of homophobia in Ireland. In a broadcast from Áras an Uachtaráin (Ireland’s equivalent to an Oval Office) McAleese endorsed the Irish LGBT rights campaign and praised campaigners for working to bring fully to fruition the country’s founding Proclamation that “all the children of the nation shall be cherished equally”. In 2010 she signed into law the state’s first legislation recognising the validity of same sex relationships (civil partnerships). Within 5 years of this, attitudes to LGBT people in Ireland had changed so dramatically that the country, by popular referendum, voted to amend the Irish constitution to allow for same sex marriage. The extent of the shift in Irish social attitudes that McAleese helped bring about is no better testified than by the appointment, just last June, of Ireland's first openly gay Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadakar. It is an extraordinary change in a country formerly dominated by the Catholic church.

It seems to me, then, that in order to become a great role model for women in the US and across the world, the first American woman President should consider becoming a transforming President, at least in the spirit of Robinson and McAleese. Ireland is, of course, a tiny country. But perhaps women from even a great country, like the US, who aspire to great political office, like the American President, can sometimes look towards a small country and draw some inspiration? Perhaps too, that first American woman President, when she takes office, might be able to connect, in some way, with the thoughts of Mary Robinson, after she was elected Ireland’s first woman President:-
“I must be a President for all the people, but more than that, I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage, who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system. And who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.”


Suzanne Connell said...

Great post Aoife!

While I was born during the last year of Mary Robinson's presidency, I find it refreshing that I was fortunate enough to grow up against the backdrop of two empowering women as presidents of Ireland. Until our current president Michael D. Higgins was elected, I (maybe naively) wasn't aware of the fact that having a woman as president in most countries is highly unusual or even unfathomable. Full disclosure, I used to actually want to be president of Ireland (until I found out they're only really a figurehead), but the only factor that made me possibly doubt myself was my inability to speak Irish fluently, which is a requirement for the post. My gender was never a reason for internalised doubt.

Evidently Ireland hasn't descended into anarchy in the 21 years females were president, which is a fact that should really assuage those who believe a woman inherently isn't fit for the job. While I realise there are huge differences between the role of the president in Ireland and America, bias against women is an international phenomenon. However, if a generation of American girls can grow up like me in knowing that even they too could be president, I truly believe some of society's sexism could be eradicated.

B. Williams said...


First of all, for what it's worth, I strongly believe that the United States could stand to learn a lot from other countries (including Ireland), be they large or small!

Second, I really appreciated learning more about Ireland's two women presidents. I am ashamed to admit I knew little about either of them before your post. I particularly loved that you floated the idea of America's first woman president being a "transforming" president.

In his own way, President Barack Obama was a transforming president. While his presidency didn't lead to perfect racial harmony, it certainly increased (and some would argue, elevated) discourse on race in this country. I think he did this by being incredibly real and vulnerable in his discussions about race and drawing upon his own experiences as a mixed-race man in American society. Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech during his 2008 campaign for president is one poignant example of how Obama tackled the issue of race during his presidential campaign and presidency. Faced with a contrived controversy over his association with a "radical" black pastor, Obama gave a compassionate and thoughtful speech on the difficult history of race in the US, and the challenges of growing up biracial in American society. As one commentator put it: "Quietly, but clearly with great passion, he walked the listener through a remarkable exploration of race from both sides of the color divide, both sides of himself."

How incredible would it being to have a woman in the office who spoke about gender (and all of its implications in American society) the way that President Obama spoke about race? Truthfully, but gently and with compassion. I am reminded of a quote by Malcolm Gladwell from his podcast "Revisionist History" ( where he speaks of "generous orthodoxy." The term "generous orthodoxy" was coined by theologian Hans Frei. The word orthodox means committed to one’s tradition, while the word generous means open to change. Frei believed that one must find the middle ground to this theory because “Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty." While originally applied to religion, Malcolm Gladwell expands the concept of generous orthodoxy beyond religion to other social movements and difficult conversations.

I feel Obama, despite the criticisms leveled against him, sat very comfortably within this middle ground when it came to race, and that is what made him so successful. Truthfully, I believe America's first woman president will need to do the same with gender. If she is able to do so, she has a strong chance of elevating the conversation around gender in American society and being a transformative president similar to Robinson, McAleese, or Obama.

Joterias! said...

Thank for this informative post Aoife! Prior to reading your post, I didn’t know much about Irish politics or presidents. But I’m glad to hear that your nation has had two female figureheads. Indeed, it seems that Ireland is one of the very few countries to have had a female head of state serve for more than fifteen years. (See I’m also happy to read that McAleese has advanced progressive reforms and called for national unity.

It’s depressing and a shame that the complete opposite is happening in the United States, where the current figure head is intent on advancing regressive (tax) reforms that will increase income/wealth inequality via trickle-down economics, and on driving a wedge among groups of people. For example, last month he re-tweeted anti-Muslim videos for no explainable reason other than to rouse Islamophobia. (

To answer your question, I’m not sure what the first female president will look or act like but I doubt she will share the current administration’s outlook. (That’s if neither Sarah Palin or Sarah Huckabee somehow make it to the oval office.) Whoever she may be, I hope America’s first female president brings an “ethic of care” to the oval office, and injects interdependence into the national ethos rather than individualism. I guess it’s a bit sexist to presume that a woman president would bring more compassion and empathy to the oval office than a man, but our country needs more of both. Although she wasn’t running for president, Justice Ginsburg comes to mind. During her nomination hearing, she stated she would visit the local jail with her clerks to see “the law as it affects most people.” ( Her comment reflects a concern for the impact of the law on others, consistent with an ethic of care. Her comment is also one that her male counterparts didn’t voice during their confirmation hearings.

Still, I agree with B. Williams that a female president may have to “play it safe” when it comes to gender, like Obama did with race. And just as boys of color now know they can grow up to be president, it’s important that girls grow up believing they too can be president.