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."
Further Reading on Patricia Ireland
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.