Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson—Ireland's First Woman President

updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the beginning, Mary Robinson hardly stood a chance. Not only had a woman never been elected President of Catholic, male-dominated Ireland, but Robinson was also running as a radical activist who had fought to liberalize laws on divorce, homosexuality and contraception. What's more, the 46-year-old lawyer and mother of three never cared for glad-handing politics, usually wore plain, unstylish clothes, kept her hair in an unflattering bob and spoke with a deep, mannish voice. But as her campaign started last spring, the slender, 5'9" Labor Party candidate began crisscrossing the country pressing palms at countless rallies, retirement homes and women's meetings. Her husband, Nick, even took her around to Irish fashion designers to help soften her image.

But more than cosmetic changes were at play when Robinson was elected Ireland's first woman President earlier this month. Outspent 10 to 1 by her main opponent—ruling Fianna Fail party candidate Brian Lenihan—the underdog narrowly defeated him with a feisty mix of grassroots voter appeal and a plea for change. Though the seven-year post is largely ceremonial—unlike the Prime Minister's role as head of government-Robinson's victory signaled a challenge to attitudes about everything from relations with Northern Ireland to abortion. And unlike her predecessors, she intends to use her position to reach out, to gather "the threads of our Irishness" and project this for the nation.

Under the headline HERE'S TO YOU a London Times editorial called Robinson's triumph "a watershed in Ireland's political culture." Normally viewed as a symbolic event, the election drew an unexpectedly high, 63 percent voter turnout. "The impact of the women's vote was obvious," Britain's Guardian concluded. "As the results came in, women of all parties made no secret of their delight." An ebullient Robinson, noting that her victory was announced on the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, said, "Something has crumbled away in this election—the old preconceptions, the old ways." She thanked everyone who voted "for a new Ireland," especially women. "Instead of rocking the cradle," she said, "they rocked the system."

Ireland's President-elect was born Mary Bourke, the daughter of two doctors and the only girl among four brothers. Raised in the west coast town of Ballina, in County Mayo, she was nurtured in principles of equality that were later to become her political hallmark. "There was never a moment when it wasn't evident that I could do what I wanted just as much as my brothers," she has said. "My brothers were very much involved in work in the home, washing dishes, cooking, making beds. Real equality is what you do in the home."

She also learned from observing her father Aubrey's medical practice. "I saw his patients come and go—the elderly, the poor, the young," she said. "Nothing was too much trouble for him. He would talk about their problems, many of which were caused by strains and stresses outside the medical, such as poor housing. He injected a very real sense of looking out into the community and being concerned about it."

Imbued with such values, Mary later won degrees in 1967 in law and French at Dublin's Trinity College, followed by a year of postgraduate work on a scholarship at Harvard Law School, where civil rights and antiwar activism strongly impressed her. Then in 1969, after she became, at 25, the youngest-ever professor of law at Trinity, she was elected to one of the college's seats in the Senate, the Irish Parliament's upper chamber. Twice defeated in bids for a seat in the Dail, the equivalent of Britain's House of Commons, Robinson served 20 years in the Senate before stepping down last year to focus on her legal work and other commitments.

At Trinity, Mary met and married, in 1970, fellow law student Nicholas Robinson, a Protestant two years her junior. Their wedding shocked her Catholic family, who boycotted the affair. Later, especially after the birth of the couple's three children—Tessa, now 18, William, 16, and Aubrey, 9—relations warmed again. Nicholas, 44, once an Irish Times cartoonist, now heads the nonprofit Irish Center for European Law. Of his wife, he has said she had developed an image of being "a somewhat austere, formidable workaholic who was a very bright lawyer but a bit of a bluestocking. Now I think people are very surprised when they meet her and find her warm, witty, a good listener and not at all strident."

When she takes office Dec. 3, Robinson will serve mainly as a symbol of national unity and commander in chief of Ireland's military. But like Czech President Vaclav Havel, another activist head of state she admires, Robinson expects to be more than a figurehead. Though personally opposed to abortion, she has defended the right to abortion information and legalized family planning. "As President," she says, "I will take on a different role—being guardian of the constitution as the people decided it. My role will be to enhance self-development of women and to carry through my own concept and sense of feminism." If Robinson succeeds, voters may ask her to commit to a second term. "There is no remission for good behavior," she says. "If you do the job well, they double the sentence."

Now, after juggling the roles of candidate, lawyer, mother and wife, President-elect Mary Robinson is readying her family for the move from their five-bedroom home, with its jumble of antiques, paintings, prints and books, into the stately presidential residence in Dublin's Phoenix Park. They'll have more room, she says, especially for her younger son, Aubrey. "Mom promised me there would be a basement," Aubrey explained, "where I could practice my drums."

—Ron Arias, Fred Hauptfuhrer in Dublin

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