We are our places.
That’s why I can’t wait to see and experience Dublin, Ireland to get a sense of the Marys who have served as presidents, to visit the archive at University College, Dublin and to talk with older locals about the two women–the only two ever–to serve as president of the tiny island always looking to brand itself as a more independent, progressive place, and not a place in the shadow of Great Britain.
Mary Robinson was upper-class and from the south, and Mary McAleese was a blue collar woman from the scrappy North, both fiercely Catholic and both questioning women’s place within Catholicism.
When a new politician bursts on to the scene, one way to learn and know about them is to go to their home. If you do that, you are likely to “get” them. I’ve had some memorable trips to get the geography of women I’ve written about: I recall a fun family road trip to Salisbury, North Carolina to see the childhood home of Elizabeth Dole (grand) and to wander around the downtown she warmly described in her biography. A visit Skowhegan, Maine to see Margaret Chase Smith’s childhood home–the same one her mother had been born in– and you get a sense of the constancy and conservative nature of her upbringing. Shirley Chisholm’s Barbados and Brooklyn roots were evident in her style, a ramrod seriousness combined with the hubris of city dwellings. Pat Schroeder, who moved multiple times as a child, as her father pursued a career in aviation learned to make friends wherever she went and brought that sensibility to her adult life. When I interviewed her she said bluntly: “it’s all geography. If you want to know about a person, ask where they are from and the circumstances of their lives.” Elizabeth Dole, spoke “fluent southern” on the campaign trail (for better as a spouse of a candidate, but worse as a candidate herself) and Hillary Clinton, who was born to a “middle class family in the middle of America” — was the only girl in her family, rejected from joining NASA because of her gender and avowing to right that wrong with her future career.
I research and write about women in non-traditional fields. It is what I know so in a year that has brought many changes: new career direction, new town, new house, it feels good to do what I know best — read and write about women. So today I’m thinking about geography as I work on a new book about women world leaders, and do some “make-this-house-a-home” maneuvers in our new home in State College.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat — May I the road rise up to meet you!