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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."
"For most women, equality is a bread-and-butter issue. Women are still paid less on the job and charged more for everything from dry cleaning to insurance."
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).