Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mary McAleese, President of Ireland: Flying With Two Wings

Ireland’s President, Mary McAleese used a rather unique analogy comparing the current economic crisis to being given a bird with two wings and insisting on flying it with one.  Speaking at a Women and Philanthropy symposium in Dublin April 14th, McAleese said the current economic situation was “pretty much testosterone driven.”   

A “toxic amalgam of cultural norms, stereotypes, laws and attitudes” has excluded women from many spheres over generations and “pulling it apart is still a major work in progress.  We are only at the beginning,” she said.  Wow!  And she’s been president of Ireland since 1997 where, when she was a little girl she was told by a priest that she couldn’t be a lawyer because she was a girl.  She showed him.  Not only did she get her law degree, in 1975 she was appointed Professor of Law at Trinity College. 

Now, I do understand her getting a law degree.  What I don’t understand is that she’s the second woman president Ireland has had (she succeeded the first one and that too was a first in the world, ever).  But Ireland has only had eight presidents.  Conclusion: we are so far behind in the United States.

But back to the subject of women and philanthropy.  The event called “Realizing the Power and Potential of Women in Philanthropy,” was hosted by the Community Foundation of Ireland (CFI) and Philanthropy Ireland.  A new philanthropic Women’s Fund for Ireland was launched at the event and the CFI pledged one hundred thousand pounds to begin the fund.  Another wonderful spread of women’s philanthropy world-wide.

Again, referring to a bird using both its wings, i.e. resources. instead of just one of them, McAleese says, if the “special constituency of private philanthropy by women flourishes, Ireland will flourish.” I take the meaning to be, if women's philanthropy becomes half of all philanthropy in Ireland (which it currently is not), the country will flourish.  Just as others have said in different ways, when women have and give their half, the world will be a better one.

I was also intrigued with the fact that McAleese grew up a Catholic in Northern Ireland in an area that was mostly Protestant.  She first hand saw battles in her neighborhood where her father’s store was hit with machine gun fire and a bomb left for him (instead it killed a young mother).  Not surprisingly, peace is of utmost importance to her.  She encourages “creating a new culture of consensus,” “reconciliation of all classes and creeds,” and quotes her grandmother as teaching her very early to be “respectful of the uniqueness of each person.”

But perhaps the most interesting part of my learning more about McAleese was her take on women’s leadership.  In an interview she gave in 1999, she said women have an advantage because we come to problems conceptually, “quite different from men.”  She believes that women can “seedbed” and aren’t particularly worried about being around for the “full flowering” of their solutions.  This she attributes to the fact that women have been out of the traditional mainstream and have had to look in the nooks and crannies and find ways through very difficult spaces.  This “has been the gift of women to the world,” she says.

An amazing woman who represents the very essence of women's philanthropy as she, "uses the present moment to craft the kind of future I want for my children and for my life.”

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