Health secretary who became popular ambassador to Ireland

Margaret M Heckler: Daughter of Irish immigrants promotes US investment in Ireland


Margaret M Heckler

Born: June 21st, 1931

Died: August 6th, 2018

Margaret M. Heckler, a former US ambassador to Ireland, was a moderate Republican who championed women’s rights in Congress before being appointed – and then forced out – as secretary of Health and Human Services in the Reagan administration, She died on Monday at a hospital in Virginia. She was 87 and lived in Arlington, Virginia.

The cause was a heart attack, according to her daughter-in-law Kimberly Heckler. Heckler represented Massachusetts in the House for 16 years. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was the lead House sponsor of the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which barred banks and other lenders from discriminating against women based on their gender or marital status.

Heckler was also a founder of the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977. It later admitted men and became the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues.

Her tenure at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was much briefer. She served about 31 months before being forced out by Donald T. Regan, the White House chief of staff, who insisted that she had been a poor manager of the department. Other conservatives in Washington complained that she had lacked ideological commitment to president Ronald Reagan’s programmes.

She resisted leaving, but ultimately accepted the job of ambassador to Ireland.

Heckler blamed a “vendetta” by another White House aide for her removal, and when the administration offered her the ambassadorship to Ireland instead, calling it a promotion, she initially scoffed at the idea, saying the job was “a lovely position for someone else, even though my maiden name is O’Shaughnessy”.

But facing dismissal at the Department of Health and Human Services, she took the post. Reagan himself appeared with Heckler to announce the appointment in a news conference, a session at which she appeared ill at ease.

“I am delighted, happier than I have been for a long time, that Margaret Heckler has agreed to my request that she become the ambassador to Ireland,” Reagan said. “She has done a fine job at HHS.”

Early life

Mary Margaret O’Shaughnessy, a daughter of Irish immigrants, was born on June 21st, 1931, in New York city. She graduated from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1953. Afterwards, she married John M. Heckler, who had managed her campaign for the student legislature. Heckler attended Boston College Law School, where she was the only woman in the class of 1956, graduating sixth in her class. She served on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, a weak advisory body, before running against Joseph W. Martin Jr.

When Heckler took the Dublin post in 1986, the Irish press accused the White House of using the embassy as a “dumping ground” for an ousted Cabinet official. Nor did it help that the Reagan administration had ignored diplomatic procedure by announcing her appointment before clearing it with Ireland.

In anticipation of her ambassadorship, the New York Times called her “shrewd and combative” in a profile. And once she got to Ireland, she became a popular figure because of her efforts to promote American investment.

As she was departing in 1989, those efforts were recognised by the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) with a silver plaque honouring “her vigorous and dynamic support’’ in promoting industry in Ireland.

Upset victory

Heckler won her House seat in 1966 with an upset victory over Joseph W. Martin Jr, a former Republican speaker of the House who was 81. Martin had won his seat in 1924 by criticising the 83-year-old incumbent at the time as feeble, and Heckler effectively used that piece of history against him.

Though she had supported George H.W. Bush for the 1980 presidential nomination and later fought unsuccessfully to persuade Reagan, the nominee, to keep support for the Equal Rights Amendment in the party platform, she backed Reagan in the general election against president Jimmy Carter and in a series of key House roll calls in 1981.

Those votes, and her firm opposition to abortion, cost her re-election in 1982. As a result of redistricting, she was thrown into a new district with a freshman Democrat, Barney Frank. Though two-thirds of the voters came from her old district and only one-third from his, he won with 60 per cent of the vote. Women’s groups turned on her over abortion, and Frank used those pro-Reagan votes on taxes and spending against her.

Looking toward the 1984 election after big Republican losses in 1982, the Reagan administration was concerned in 1983 that polls showed women taking a dimmer view of the president than men did. It sought to put women in high-visibility posts to smooth over those differences, and chose Heckler to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

She acknowledged in an interview in 2011 that she had gotten the post even though she had shown no outward qualifications for it.

The Aids epidemic tested that goal, as she coped with the White House’s insistence on holding down spending. Learning of the disease only when she took office in March 1983, she designated it the “number one priority” for her department.

But her tenure came to an abrupt end in October 1985, when Regan ousted her.


The Hecklers’ marriage of 31 years ended publicly and bitterly in 1984 after John Heckler, the founder of a Boston stock brokerage, filed for divorce. He remarried three weeks later. Margaret Heckler is survived by their three children, John Jr, Alison Heckler Haensler and Belinda Mulliken; and four grandchildren.

Always a deeply religious Roman Catholic, Heckler said that on her return from Ireland, “I became very devoted to affirming the faith for all people.” She worked with Catholic charities, especially medical and anti-abortion institutions.

Protecting the “rights of the unborn is an absolute human right”, she said. “The creation of life is a sacred gift from God, and it has to be preserved.”