For Patricia Ireland, a World of Feminism


"Will that be turkey on rye? You want lettuce and tomato?" Patricia Ireland, head of the nation's best-known women's organization, laughs as she takes a visitor's lunch order. "Can you tell I've waited on a lot of tables in my time?"

She's also been a flight attendant--back when they were called stewardesses and they "really moved their tails for you." And a corporate lawyer. And then ended up leading the National Organization for Women for the past decade. Or, as she likes to put, her presidency at NOW began with George I and ends with George II. And in between there was Clinton. Paula Jones. Monica S. Lewinsky. And a lot of tough choices for someone many considered the feminist spokeswoman of the 1990s.

This weekend, NOW will elect a new president at its annual meeting, and Ireland will step down after having served the maximum two terms. It's a hard move for someone who has been in the limelight--at least the inside-the-Beltway, CNN, Larry King limelight--for a decade.

"I came in just as Anita Hill was testifying [about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas] and made them open the hearings, and I leave having organized pickets against [Atty. Gen. nominee] John Ashcroft," Ireland recalls, sitting in her office during a recent interview. "I don't believe in term limits, but I'm sort of glad not to be tempted to run again. When I took this job, I cut my income in half and doubled my expenses." Adds the 55-year-old Ireland, who started out making about $60,000 a year with NOW, "I don't mind getting old, but I don't want to be old and poor."

Ireland laughs, something she does often and easily. She obviously relishes the role she's had in navigating the women's movement through the treacherous 1990s--and over the years has mastered the fine skill of making often-told quotes still sound fresh. "She manages to be clear and firm and understandable on the sorts of television shows no one should be expected to go on," says Gloria Steinem, fellow feminist and founder of Ms. Magazine.

In some ways, the new leadership of NOW, at least initially, will have an easier time rallying the troops than Ireland did. Under President Clinton, Ireland says, NOW's membership fell about 15%--from about 260,000 members nationwide to about 220,000. When Clinton came into office, Ireland remembers, "a lot of activists, especially on abortion, breathed a sigh of relief and went home. They said, 'We're safe now.' " But since President Bush took office in January, NOW has regained that lost percentage.

The election, which Ireland calls "hard-fought," will be between candidates representing Ireland's leadership--the presidential candidate is her executive vice president--and women from state chapters who stress the need for the new president to broaden her attention beyond D.C.

Whoever steps into the leadership post of the $5-million organization will have her work cut out for her in the new century, with upcoming battles over issues involving the fetus--not just access to abortion, but fetal stem-cell research as well. Perhaps equally challenging is proving that NOW is relevant to younger women, nonwhite women and those below the middle class.

Ireland, naturally, would argue that it is, pointing to what she considers the group's most significant victories over the past decade--passage of two key pieces of legislation for women, for which NOW heavily lobbied. One, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, gives plaintiffs the right to collect damages for employment discrimination based on sex. The other, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, had as one of its provisions more money for training law enforcement in the area of domestic violence. (Another important part of the bill, which allowed victims of domestic violence to seek civil damages, was struck down last year by the Supreme Court.)

In her beige pantsuit, minimal jewelry and short-but-stylish hairdo, Ireland looks the proper Washington insider--even if she did kick off her shoes when she walked into the office. She is by no means the old right-wing image of the angry, humorless feminist, but, neither is she the symbol of today's younger generation, many of whom are more conversant with Tomb Raider Lara Croft as a role model than feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan.

"They take it as their birthright that they are equal," Ireland says. "They don't take it as I did that sexual harassment is the price of going into the work force, and if you were smart, you laughed it off." Ireland is quick to qualify this--she doesn't begrudge younger women this complacency in the least. She adds that she found a recent tour of 34 college campuses inspiring for the new feminist activism she says is growing there, out of the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalism movements. She's also seeing young feminists in high schools and even middle schools. Their political activism may not look like the '60s protests, but Steinem calls it "deeper and more organic"--fighting for tenure for a female professor, say, or organizing an all-woman safety patrol.

The Washington, D.C., office does not feel like a graveyard of '60s feminism, but rather teems with about 30 staffers and 17 high school and college-age interns. Jeans, T-shirts and various body piercings seemed to be the dress de rigueur. In fact, Ireland says, it was the young interns in her office who surprised her the most during group meetings strategizing about responding to charges that Clinton sexually harassed intern Lewinsky. "The interns were adamant that a 21-year-old does know who she wants to have sex with," Ireland says. "One intern said Monica took advantage of a weakness in Clinton."

The Clinton crisis. It dominated many a conversation in those second-floor offices. Ireland had quite a few challenges during her presidency, but NOW and other feminist groups' scramble to address the Clinton debacle could be considered one of the most difficult. They were attacked on both sides of the issue--there were hard-core Democrats who thought NOW should not criticize a president perceived as "good" on women's issues. And there were many Republicans, as well as longtime feminists, who argued that NOW's reaction--and that of most women's groups--to Clinton/Paula Jones/Lewinsky/et al was too little, too late.

Ireland is most sensitive to the second criticism. "I have thought long and hard, not only for publication, but also for my own sense of who I am and what the organization is, and I'm confident we acted with integrity," she says slowly, as if emphasizing every word. "Clinton was never our feminist dream candidate. We never endorsed him. He was better than George H. Bush and better than [Bob] Dole."

She adds: "I sat on 'Larry King' three times and said Clinton's behavior was indefensible. I asked [King] how many times are you going to ask me. I started going to the thesaurus to look for other words than despicable."

She doesn't think that she would have been harder on a Republican, or that she should have acted more quickly. Her one regret, she says, is that she didn't make more of an effort to talk with Paula Jones. Through miscommunication or manipulation (it depends on whom you ask), a planned phone conversation between the two never took place. "Looking back, I think Paula Jones was used and used badly," she says. "I shouldn't have gotten my back up. In truth, I would have liked to have sat down with her and looked her in the eye, like we did with many [ex-Oregon Sen. Bob] Packwood accusers."

Ireland is no stranger to ambiguity in relationships. She has acknowledged having an ongoing relationship with a woman while married to her husband. She is now solely with her husband of 34 years, James Humble, and she says that as she gets older, she recognizes the importance of a long-term relationship, "even if it is flawed." She also chose not to have children, a decision she made with ambivalence. "I think the issue of how we have and raise children is the greatest mountain in the feminist movement," Ireland says. "We coined the phrase 'every mother is a working mother."'

Steinem says it was NOW's strong opposition to the 1996 welfare bill that was one of the organization's shining moments of the 1990s. The legislation forces recipients off the welfare rolls after five years, meaning that many single mothers have to choose between earning money and taking care of their children.

In the end, NOW and other opponents lost. The organization is currently gearing up for a fight to get state legislation passed mandating a caregivers' tax credit--or attributed economic value as it's known--for people taking care of children or other relatives. Ireland says another important battle for the next NOW leadership will be getting more feminists into state and national politics. "We see it happening, but at a glacial pace," she says. "The number of women in state legislatures actually has fallen. Our maxim under Bush is, 'We have no permanent friends. We have no permanent enemies. We have permanent issues."'

On an electoral front that's closer to home, Ireland has already weighed in on the NOW presidential election in favor of its current executive vice president, Kim Gandy, and her slate. Opposing Gandy is a past Florida chapter president, Toni Van Pelt. Although both candidates are the traditional white, middle-aged women that NOW is often accused of solely representing, both slates also include minority women, and one includes a bisexual woman, the other a lesbian.

Not all want to see a continuation of Ireland's legacy. Phyllis Frank, president of the Rockland County, N.Y., chapter of NOW, says it's time to get some non-D.C. folks in office. "It's been 10 years of one administration," Frank says. "It's gone from a sense of excitement to stale and old. It needs to stay in touch with the times."

Ireland says her future probably holds a return to Homestead, Fla., which she considers home--after all, it's where her hairdresser is. She'll be leaving behind a salary of about $160,000 a year and will probably go back to private law. She'll be packing up her office, with its feminist posters from around the world and plants that look like they've seen better days and a plush purple Tinky Winky Teletubby. But she's not leaving women's politics.

"I don't want to talk about passing the torch," she says, standing up and putting her shoes on, "but I'm happy to share it."

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