Mary P McAleese

Commencement Address at Mount Holyoke College - May 24, 2009

Mary P McAleese
May 24, 2009— South Hadley, Massachusetts
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Presidents, like most people, get to have a mixture of bad days, good days and great days. This is one of my great days and that is thanks to the generosity and the welcome of Mount Holyoke. I would like to thank President Creighton and Leslie Miller, Congressman Neal and the Board of Trustees, as well as the faculty and student body of Mount Holyoke for this honour of being counted an alumnus of this great College and for the privilege of being in the distinguished company of Her Royal Highness, Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal, and Professor Clare Waterman.

Over 40 years ago when I was in my midteens I announced at home that I had decided to become a lawyer. The first words I heard in response were “You can’t because you are a woman.” It was the voice of our parish priest. The next voice I heard was my mother’s, saying “Don’t listen to him!” To my mother’s surprise I heeded her advice. A couple of years later, the same year that the first human walked on the moon, I started law school and our first text book was called Learning the Law by a very eminent jurist, Professor Glanville Williams. In a chapter ominously entitled “Women” he stated his views that law school was no place for women and that our voices were too weak to be heard in a courtroom. That man had clearly never met my mother. He reckoned the only thing to be gained by having female law students was the opportunity it provided to meet suitable spouses. I married a dentist just for spite.

Now, to use the language of your own Emily Dickinson, “you dwell in possibility.” Women dwell in possibility thanks to institutions like Mount Holyoke which simply would not accept the tyranny of those words, “you can’t because you are a woman.” For centuries our world has tried to fly on one wing, and it has not been a pretty sight as it struggled with the downstream consequences of wasting the talent and potential of that other wing, the women of the world. In the developed world the story has changed profoundly in a relatively short period of time and already, for example, in my own country of Ireland it is no accident that the peace and reconciliation that eluded us generation after generation for hundreds of years has at last come to pass, in an Ireland where women’s talents are flooding every aspect of life as never before.

This College has a proud history of faith in the genius of women and a proud part in the still new and evolving story of a world created by the genius of men and women working together in egalitarian partnership. We are still in the opening chapters of that story for it is still only within living memory that women were, here and elsewhere, decried as terrorists for demanding their right to vote and it is still the case that, in most parts of the world, women are still regarded as second class and second-best. We cannot accept that. Every woman who does what you are doing and takes the opportunity to develop her talents and fulfill her potential is making a statement of intent that freedom and human dignity will prevail.

Even now as the world faces the realities of a shattered, global economic system, we know that the consequences for women are particularly brutal, and bad as they are for American and Irish women, they are utterly appalling for the women of the developing world who are so often right on the frontline. Just as women are beginning for the first time in history to come into their economic stride, the UN has predicted that the economic crisis will see 22 million women become unemployed worldwide in 2009. Women are already paid less, work more often in the informal economy with fewer rights, own businesses dependent on microfinance loans many of which will dry up, and rely on now dwindling remittances to keep home budgets going. And it is girls that often get pulled out of school first when family finances are reduced. Two-thirds of the illiterate people in the world are women. That equates directly to disempowerment. It is the first, founding inequality on which wider restrictions on female achievement and contribution are based. It is a phenomenal loss to each country which sees its women and girls held back but the biggest loss is to the individual whose life is only half-lived.

Twice as many men as women belong to political parties, a tiny fraction of senior management in the private sector worldwide are women. Even when education is fought for and achieved, the ability to use it freely is often anything but easy--one third of African women with a third-level education emigrate, markedly higher than for men. And, of course, down to the very level of physical safety, in fewer than one in ten cases of sexual violence worldwide is the perpetrator charged.

So you can see there are still a lot of unwritten chapters in the global history of women and of humanity, for humanity itself awaits the realisation of its full potential for as long as women are not in charge of their own destiny. But here in this great democracy you are in charge of your destiny--you dwell in real possibility and there are obstacles to a fair, just and free world that need the collective efforts of principled men and women. There is an Irish saying that “two shortens the journey.” A bird flying on two wings has a better chance of getting somewhere that a bird flying on one.

Our Peace Process in Ireland is a good case in point for it was the combined imagination and determination of an educated generation of men and women that finally broke the stranglehold of history and allowed us as the Ulster poet John Hewitt said, “to fill the centuries’ arrears.” We were blessed in our friends who helped shorten the road to peace. Above all, here in America: I think of Senator Kennedy; of Senator George Mitchell; Congressman Richie Neal here beside me; Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama; of now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. I think of people across the whole Irish American community--who devoted their time, their energy and their concrete help to building the momentum for peace and the groundwork for reconciliation.

In a world that has been turned upside down in so many ways recently, one strong, robust, enduring miracle is Ireland’s Peace Process which, though far yet from complete, has developed a solid resilience that is very reassuring of the human capacity to change hearts, change minds, and as Seamus Heaney says “make new meanings flare.”

Isn’t that precisely the agenda set for each one of you by Mount Holyoke’s founder, Mary Lyon, who asked you to “go where no-one else will go and do what no-one else will do”? Two hundred years later, though you may not yet see it with crystal clarity, the truth is there are so many new places the world needs you to go and good, humanly-uplifting things that will not be done unless you do them.

There is an Irish proverb that says “Tus maith is leath na hoibre”--“a good start is half the work.” Mount Holyoke offered you a good start and you took it. Enjoy the other half and may the best for you, and for all of us be still to come, in and through your lives, your unique genius.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir. Thank you.

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