March 17, 1989-- Dorothy Hayden Cudahy, the “First Lady of Irish Radio,” established another “first” when she led the March down Fifth Avenue as the first female Grand Marshal in the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Her precedent-breaking walk came four years after her initial bid for the post had opened parade organizers to charges of sexism.
In my youth, my parents began each Sunday with Mass and a trip to the bakery, and closed it out by listening to Ms. Cudahy’s “Irish Memories,” a weekly program consisting of musical selections, news, advertisements, interviews, and other segments. She took over the program at age 21 in 1943 upon the death of her father, James Hayden, who had been running it for the past 15 years. Even her assumption of this post foreshadowed her later pioneering effort in the way it upset traditional notions of male dominance, as many listeners assumed the job would go to her brother, James Hayden Jr.
An entire generation has passed since gay-rights activists and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers had their first clash. Many of those caught up in observing the controversy year after year may be unmindful of the parade’s political donnybrooks in a history dating back to 1762.
The 1980s, when Cudahy and her supporters waged their campaign, was particularly rife with disputes that dominated the headlines. In 1983, for instance, the selection of Michael Flannery, an 81-year-old founder of the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID)—just recently acquitted of gunrunning to the Irish Republican Army—led to the boycott of the parade (similar to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s this year) by then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former Gov. Hugh L. Carey.
When Cudahy threw her hat into the ring, she seemed like a natural for the honor—someone with a strong commitment to Irish culture (epitomized not just by her program but by co-founding, with Paul O’Dwyer, the Irish Institute of New York), and, as Calvin Trillin noted in a 1988 New Yorker piece on the parade, someone willing to campaign for the post.
But the recently installed Parade Chairman, Frank Beirne, barred her from the nomination because she was not a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), even though she was a member of its Ladies’ Auxiliary. Even after the rules were changed, it took several more years for her candidacy to advance. The Trillin article cited several reasons for this initial failure, including the perception that Cudahy’s son Sean had campaigned too strenuously on her behalf (though this did not seem to hamper the election of prior male winners); resentment of Cudahy for bringing on the AOH unwelcome media attention; and, simply, sexism.
The year that Cudahy won, her only opponent was Mary Holt Moore, a Bronx elementary school teacher. (“I presume they didn’t have a viable candidate in the males,” Cudahy chuckled.)
Cudahy (who died at 88 in 2010) was not obstinate, she told a journalist, but “an optimist.” That faith led her to break down a silly barrier. Later female grand marshals—Moore, along with actress Maureen O’Hara and author Mary Higgins Clark—would follow in her wake.