Patricia Ireland is an attorney and social activist who became the ninth president of the national organization for women (NOW) on December 15, 1991; she served as president for ten years, stepping down in 2001. Ireland took over the presidency just as NOW was
beginning to feel a shift in its ranks and the United States was experiencing a renewed interest in the feminist movement.
Ireland was born October 19, 1945, in Oak Park, Illinois. She grew up on a farm in Valparaiso, Indiana, where her family raised honeybees. She is the younger of two daughters of James Ireland and Joan Filipek (older sister Kathy was killed in a horseback riding accident when Ireland was five years old). Ireland's father, a metallurgical engineer, taught her to be passionate about her profession. Her mother was a volunteer counselor with Planned Parenthood who became the first director of the local chapter. She was Ireland's social activist role model.
Ireland entered DePauw University when she was 16, but became pregnant and was forced to travel to Japan to obtain a legal abortion. She then married and transferred to the University of Tennessee, where she obtained a degree in German in 1966. Her first marriage lasted only a short time. She later began work as a graduate student and German teacher, but she quickly became bored with teaching. She and her second husband, artist James Humble, moved to Miami, where she became a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways.
Working as a flight attendant was a pivotal experience for Ireland. She discovered that her employee health insurance plan would not cover her husband's dental expenses, even though it did pay such expenses for the wives of male employees. Ireland consulted Dade County NOW for advice. It referred her to the labor department, the equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC), and the flight attendants' union. As a result of Ireland's challenge, the insurance policy was amended. Her characteristic good humor is evident in her comments on the experience: "The vice-president of the labor task force at Dade County NOW is now the dean of women lawmakers in the Florida legislature. I am the president of NOW. And Pan Am is bankrupt."
Taking on Pan Am's discriminatory insurance plan whet Ireland's appetite for more knowledge of the law. She enrolled in the law school at Florida State University while continuing to work as a flight attendant. Ireland began to notice that if she introduced herself as a flight attendant, people had little to say to her, but if she introduced herself as a law student, they were eager to discuss complex legal issues and current events. The denigration of work traditionally done by women offended her growing feminist sensibilities. "My brain was the same,
my ideas were just as worthy or unworthy, but there was a tremendous difference in the way that people perceived and treated me," she said. "I think traditional women's work is undervalued—teaching, health care, social work. That was part of the experience that made me want to be an activist."
Ireland earned her law degree from the University of Miami, where she had transferred from Florida State, in 1975. She both served on the school's law review and the Lawyer of the Americas (now the University of Miami Inter-American Law Review) and did pro bono work for Dade County NOW. After graduation, she practiced corporate law for 12 years, continued working for Dade County NOW, and helped corporate clients formulate affirmative action programs.
Ireland's work in the women's rights movement expanded during her years as an attorney. In 1983, she became the chair of Florida NOW's lesbian rights task force. In 1985, she managed Eleanor C. Smeal's successful campaign for the presidency of NOW, and in 1987, she was elected NOW's executive vice president, a post she held until May 1991, when she became acting president following the illness of Molly Yard. On December 15, 1991, Ireland was officially named NOW's ninth president.
As NOW's top officer, Ireland was charged with pursuing the group's four priority issues: protecting abortion rights; electing women to political leadership positions; forming coalitions with other civil rights organizations; and advocating for international women's rights. She vowed to stir things up, and she did. During her years as president, Ireland developed and implemented a number of programs, including Project Stand Up for Women, an international program designed to protect women who seek abortion services and to combat anti-abortion clinic blockades; Elect Women for a Change, which provides experienced campaign support for feminist candidates; and the Global Feminist Program, which provides a forum for women around the world to discuss relevant women's issues. Ireland also served as legal counsel on several NOW landmark cases, and was a major organizer of such events as the 1993 March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian, and Bi Civil Rights.
Ireland's tenure, however, was not without detractors. Specifically, questions arose as to whether NOW, with Ireland at the helm, represented the majority of U.S. women, or whether its focus had become too narrow. Such questions were prompted when NOW announced that lesbian rights would be one of its top priorities. At about the same time, the Advocate, a gay and lesbian newspaper, revealed that Ireland, while maintaining her long-standing marriage to Humble, who lives in Florida, also had a female companion with whom she lived in Washington, D.C.
Even NOW's allies became concerned that the organization would be perceived as a fringe group that did not address the concerns of the majority, and that support for NOW causes would be eroded. betty n. friedan, the group's founding president, accused NOW of failing to address women's current concerns, such as juggling families and jobs. Ireland, however, maintained that NOW was on the right track for carrying on the fight for women's rights. "Someone has to raise the issues that make people uncomfortable, the issues that other people don't want to talk about…. [I]t's healthy to be angry at the situation women face. So, yes, we may be militant and angry but we're also thoughtful and intelligent."
In 2001, after ten years, Ireland stepped down as president of NOW. In 2003, she became the CEO of the YWCA of the USA. Some conservative critics raised eyebrows over the appointment. However, according to Audrey Peeples, chair of the YWCA's National Coordinating Board, "There is no better person than Patricia Ireland to help re-ignite our advocacy positions."
In addition to her professional duties, Ireland is a frequent contributor to periodicals, newspapers, and journals and, in 1996, she released her autobiography, What Women Want. Ireland is also a frequent guest speaker at universities and with human rights groups.
Ireland, Patricia. 1996. What Women Want. New York: Dutton.
Resnik, Judith. 2003. "Patricia Ireland: Women, Meeting (Again), In and Beyond the United States." In The Difference "Difference" Makes: Women and Leadership, edited by Deborah L. Rhode. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.
YWCA. 2003. New Direction for Nation's Oldest, Largest Women's Movement. Press Release, April 30. Available online at <www.ywca.org/html/docs/pressrelease-043003.html> (accessed July 9, 2003).
Patricia Ireland (born 1945), who started her career as an airline flight attendant, became a successful corporate lawyer in the mid-1970s but found her true calling as head of the powerful National Organization for Women (NOW), of which Ireland was elected both vice-president and president.
The world of feminist polemics and advocacy is far removed from the middle-class upbringing that Patricia Ireland enjoyed. A child during the 1950s, her youth was relatively uneventful, yet the tumult and tensions of her college years and her early work experiences paved the way for a vastly different lifestyle. Her election to the presidency of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1991 represented the culmination of decades of intense political activism on behalf of women's rights.
Patricia Ireland was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on October 19, 1945, to James Ireland and Joan Filipek. She spent her childhood in rural Valparaiso, Indiana, where her father was an engineer and her mother was involved in Planned Parenthood. Patricia's older sister, Kathy, died at age seven in a horseback-riding accident. Patricia, then four and a half, subsequently attributed to this tragedy her ability to cope with difficulty and face challenges with equanimity. Despite the emotional impact of her sister's death, Patricia was, by all accounts, a happy child. She not only made the honor roll in high school but won a school beauty contest as well. She entered DePauw University in 1961, when she was 16.
Fight Against Discrimination
While in college, Patricia became pregnant. She fled to Japan for an abortion, then married for a short time. These events carried her away from a chosen career of teaching, placing her instead on a radically different course. After her marriage Patricia left DePauw University for the University of Tennessee; in 1966 she earned a Bachelor's degree in German. She remained at the university, enrolling in graduate school, and in 1968 married again. After leaving graduate studies, she and her husband went to Miami, Florida, where Ireland became a flight attendant with Pan American World Airways. This detour proved pivotal: her self-assurance, independence, and discomfort with gender stereotypes made it impossible for her to maintain the attitude that the airline required of stewardesses. Her noncompliance with rules brought her, during her initial year there, into direct confrontation with Pan Am. Outraged at the airline's sexist employment policies, Ireland filed action against Pan Am regarding health insurance coverage; she learned that her husband was not covered on her dental policy but that wives of Pan Am employees were covered. Bringing her concerns to the Dade County chapter of NOW, she received help.
Pan Am reversed its biased dental policy in 1969. This episode marked the beginning of Patricia Ireland's feminist crusade. Realizing that legal action could effect lasting change for women, Ireland entered law school at Florida State University in Tallahassee but kept her Pan Am job. While studying law, Ireland organized fellow classmates formally to protest the use of a biased textbook; she also worked as a volunteer with NOW's Dade County chapter. Earning her degree in 1975 from the University of Miami (to which she had transferred earlier), Ireland was hired by the Miami firm Arky, Freed, Stearns, Watson & Greer. She continued volunteering with NOW, and in 1977 helped mount a challenge to an anti-homosexual referendum in Dade County. Subsequently, Ireland worked to promote Florida's ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the amendment was defeated nationally in 1982, her efforts led to the ouster of Florida conservative Senator Dick Anderson in his subsequent reelection bid.
In 1983, Ireland was elected to chair NOW's lesbian rights task force in the Florida chapter where she added her voice to an increasingly powerful lesbian faction within the national organization. In the face of her longtime identification with this issue, Ireland continually spurned the label "lesbian" or "bisexual." She remained low-key about her private affairs, staying married to her second husband while admitting companionship with a woman whose anonymity she strove to protect.
In 1985 Ireland managed Eleanor Smeal's successful campaign for the NOW presidency; two years later Ireland won the vice-presidency, running with firebrand Molly Yard. She founded NOW's Project Stand Up for Women to combat peacefully the efforts of right-wing, anti-abortion advocates. Winning re-election with Yard in 1989, she became acting president of NOW in May 1991 after Yard suffered a stroke. She was named NOW's ninth president in December 1991. As president, she saw NOW membership increase, particularly during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas, which involved the alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill.
Both the organization and its leader endured harsh words from critics who said NOW maintained an overly strident tone and a political stance exclusive of mainstream America. Conversely, Ireland was excoriated by militant feminists who were dismayed by what they saw as her reluctance to declare war on convention. Straddling these perceptions, Ireland nonetheless promoted activism and generated widespread support for women's rights. Organizing the Global Feminist Conference in January 1992, Ireland backed a pro-choice demonstration in Washington, D.C., in April 1992—a show of solidarity attended by nearly one million people.
Putting Ideas Into Words
Ireland's first book What Women Want was published in 1996. In the book, she discussed the events in her life that encouraged her to become an advocate for women. She wrote about the struggles of NOW, particularly during their attempt to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, and the direction of the organization. She outlined some of the crucial issues facing women today, such as equal pay for work, reproductive freedom, and domestic violence. In addressing the question of what women want, Ireland hoped that her readers would ask themselves the same question. She explained, "When you decide what you want, when you add your own voice to those of other women, when we begin collectively to answer the question of what women want, we become stronger; we become much more determined to get it."
Articles and interviews provide extensive background on this feminist leader. Some sources are the New York Times Magazine (March 1, 1992), Newsweek (July 22, 1991), and the National Review (August 12, 1991).
Bader, Eleanor J. "What Women Want (Book Review)." The Progressive 60 (July 1, 1996): 42 (2).
Clift, Eleanor. "Patricia Ireland: What NOW?" Newsweek (December 16, 1991): 30.
Ireland, Patricia. What Women Want New York: Dutton, 1996.
——. "The State of NOW." Ms. (July/August 1992): 24-27.
Renwick, Lucille. "NOW Chief Aids Launch of Coalition." Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1995.
Selvin, Molly. "Whiplash from Backlash. What Women Want by Patricia Ireland (Book Review)." Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1996. □