“We are adventuring into a new world.”
– Astronaut Eileen Collins.
The idea of an issue devoted to women has been brewing for some time but it really took hold these past months with all of the 1916 commemorations and celebrations marking Ireland’s rebellion. Finally, the Women of the Rising are getting their due, and there has been a plethora of articles showing us just how active women were in Ireland’s fight for Independence.
All the hoopla caused us to consider today’s women and that became the impetus for this special issue celebrating our Top 50 Power Women. Our honorees come for all walks of life, but they are bound by a deep appreciation for the influence of their heritage on who they are today and the opportunities made available to them by their forebears.
Unlike other countries, Irish woman emigrated in numbers equal to men. Between 1846 and 1875, half of the 2,700,000 Irish entering the United States were female. By the 1870s, female immigrants outnumbered the males. As single women, they found jobs as live-in maids and cooks and housekeepers in New York, Boston, and other cities. The work was hard, the hours long, and the pay not great, but they had a roof over their heads, and they sent money back home to keep the roof over their parents’ heads, and pay for passage over for younger brothers and sisters. (From 1850 to 1900 an estimated 260 million dollars was sent home to Ireland from daughters and sons in America).
We see the lives of those early Irish immigrants reflected in today’s immigrants who, struggling in low-paying jobs, are sending what money they can back home, and striving to educate their children. These immigrants have their champions in the labor unions, as the Irish did. None more so than our Top 50 Power Women honoree Mary Kay Henry, who as president of the Service Employees International Union represents about 2.1 million workers.
Mary Kay was instrumental in the fight to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour.
We see this empathy for others in so many of our Top 50 honorees. Maureen Mitchell is a powerhouse in corporate America, where she promotes diversity in the workplace. She is also passionate about helping young women in poorer countries achieve their dream through the non-profit She’s the First, an organization that provides scholarships to girls in developing countries to attend high school. Maureen became involved with the She’s the First because “it spoke to me of my mother’s background,” she tells Adam Farley in a far-reaching interview, in which she discusses her work, her upbringing as the daughter of immigrants, and what her success means to her.
In other interviews too, we see the power of women to enact change. Our most visible woman in Irish America is the dynamo Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. Anne is passionate about inclusivity, something that became important to her during her time at the U.N. “[Inclusivity] is something that I have always, instinctively been very attached to,” she tells Sarah Buscher, “a deep sense of equality, equal rights . . . women’s rights, human rights.”
Meanwhile, Roma Downey, the actress, producer, and director, is helping to bring a smile to the faces of children born with cleft lips and palates through her work with Operation Smile.
Others are spreading the joy through the arts. Several of our honorees, following the long tradition of Irish storytellers, are writers. The world of music and dance is also represented. Eileen Ivers, who electrifies the audience with her dazzling fiddle-playing, also spends her time bringing music to schools. “We want children to learn, to be influenced by the arts, to be moved by roots music, and to see that it isn’t an archaic art form. It’s relevant today. It’s an extension of the past right into the present,” she tells Kristin McGowan.
The Irish love of dance is given expression in Gillian Murphy, the star of American Ballet Theatre, who has been dancing since the time she could walk. She is astonishing in this season’s ABT repertoire at Lincoln Center. I caught her opening night performance in Sylvia, and the following week, her 20th anniversary performance in La Fille mal gardée, which had the audience bursting into spontaneous applause at her ability to make the most difficult feats look effortless and joyful.
Echoing the spirit of earlier generations, Gillian knows that it’s not just enough to have natural talent, success takes hard work and focus. “I think with true passion you can do so much more than you think is possible,” she told me when we spoke for this issue’s cover story.
This determination is a characteristic that all our Top 50 Power Women share; the knowing that to reach for the stars you have to stay on your toes. (And in Gillian’s case, a mother who will drive you an hour and a half each way to ballet class).
We applaud all our wonderful women profiled in this issue, and we remember those who went before. They passed on to us not just an ethos of hard work but their joy of expression, their love of a good laugh, and delight in music and dance; all the things that carried them through hard times and helped them celebrate the good. That is their true gift to us. ♦