Feminist Patricia Ireland was the longest-serving President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a position she held from 1991 to 2001.
Ireland was born October 19, 1945 in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, to metallurgical engineer James Ireland and stay-at-home-mom Joan Filipek. When Patricia was four-and-a-half years old, her seven-year-old sister Kathy was killed while horseback riding. Soon thereafter, the family moved to Valparaiso, Indiana.
Religion lost its significance for Ireland’s Irish Catholic family after the loss of her sister. "My mother lost every remaining vestige of her Catholic faith," Ireland wrote in her 1996 autobiography, What Women Want. As a result of this loss, Ireland grew up in an unusually liberal household for the 1950s. Ireland recalls that her mother talked to her about "girls falling in love with girls" and an "advocate of birth control" who had started the local Planned Parenthood.
During her teenage years, Ireland was a rebellious girl who enjoyed partying and "free love." But she soon settled down and married her high-school sweetheart, 18-year-old Don Anderson. After three years of marriage, she realized that she could not be "content" in the "conventional role" of a housewife and filed for divorce.
Ireland attended DePauw University for one year and then transferred to the University of Tennessee, where she graduated with a B.A. in German in 1966. She spent one year in graduate school but became "convinced" she was not meant to become a teacher and dropped out. She also had an illegal abortion sometime in the mid-1960s.
Ireland returned home to Valparaiso and worked as a cocktail waitress for a few months before deciding to become a stewardess because the "'bad girl' mystique appealed to me." Pan Am hired her to be a stewardess and she moved to Miami, Florida.
It was Ireland's second husband, James Humble, who helped spark what she now recalls as her slowly "budding feminism. After living together for awhile in Miami, the couple married in 1968. Ireland says that Humble helped open her eyes to the "disrespect" she was "subjected to on the job" every day.
In 1972 Ireland enrolled at the University of Florida Law School, and transferred a year later to the University of Miami Law School. After graduating from Miami Law in 1975, she became a corporate attorney with the international law firm Paul, Landy & Bailey. In 1978 she moved to a larger firm, Arky, Fried, Stearns, Watson & Greer. Eventually, Ireland began doing pro bono legal work for feminist causes, which earned her the nickname of "pro bono queen."
At that time, Miami was what Ireland called a "volatile, violent and commie-hating city" due to the influx of Cubans and Latin Americans who had recently fled from totalitarian regimes. There were constant clashes, often violent, between "right wing" Cuban exiles (many of whom had had their homes, money and property confiscated by Castro's regime) and Castro's Communist agents and sympathizers, such as Ireland's friend (and later her lesbian lover), Socialist Workers Party member Pat Silverthorn.
As a result of Silverthorn's influence, Ireland began developing socialist sympathies and participating in pro-communist rallies. She participated in a Miami Free Speech Coalition demonstration against American aid to the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Joining her were members of Citizens for a Nuclear Freeze, the American Civil Liberties Union, and numerous communist organizations and social-justice religious groups. "I began to see that political coalitions, working with others where our agendas overlapped, were not only possible but imperative," notes Ireland. "…In one way or another, all of my years in Miami were consumed with learning the ways of politics, power and protest."
As a result of her "experience with anticommunist attacks in Miami," Ireland claimed to see parallels between the U.S. and Latin America, where "abusive authorities and repressive governments were a fixture of life" and where "state-sanctioned murder" was the norm. Today, she says, she instinctively expects "the possibility of violence whenever and wherever the right wing makes its stand."
Ireland began to get involved in the abortion-rights movement and clinic defense in the 1980s. She referred to pro-life activists who demonstrated in the vicinity of abortion clinics as "anti-abortion terrorists." In 1987, after twelve years of juggling her paying clients and doing full-time pro bono work as well, Ireland left the private sector and became NOW's National Treasurer. In addition to her duties as Treasurer, she also spearheaded NOW's campaign to derail President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork as a Supreme Court Justice.
Six weeks after Ireland's arrival at NOW, then-President Eleanor Smeal announced that she would be leaving the organization in order to form the Feminist Majority Foundation. Smeal asked Ireland to take her place as NOW's President. But Ireland was terrified of having the public learn that she had been having a lesbian extramarital affair for nearly a decade with Silverthorn. When her affair was finally revealed in 1991, Ireland dismissed the notion that she had been hiding "in any closet" as preposterous, explaining that her private life simply "wasn't news" before she became president of NOW. In response to media queries, she said, "I have a husband, and he is very important in my life. I also have a companion, and she is very important in my life, too." (Ireland is still married to Humble.)
In 1988 Ireland became NOW's Executive Vice President. She focused on "political and grassroots organizing" and initiated the first National Young Feminists Conference. Abortion clinic defense, such as Project Stand Up for Women, took center stage and Ireland launched a carefully planned "political and litigation strategy."
After Ireland was elected President of NOW in 1991, she began a public relations campaign, "targeting women's magazines and talk shows," to raise NOW's profile and boost its membership. She also worked on "grassroots strategizing and organizing to enhance [NOW's] political clout." And she led NOW into the realm of social justice activism, joining forces with what she called "the civil rights movement, the lesbian and gay rights movement, labor as well as welfare and disability rights groups."
The issues high on NOW's agenda during Ireland's tenure were abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights. NOW also depicted America as a nation where sexual harassment and violence against women were rampant, and where the health care system, the education system, and corporations were hostile to women's needs.
Ostensibly a non-partisan organization in terms of electoral politics, NOW, during under Ireland’s leadership, was clearly aligned with the Left and the Democratic Party. The organization’s national and local chapters alike launched Political Action Committees (PACs) to facilitate the advancement of left-leaning candidates for political office. NOW’s PACs were particularly helpful to such notables as President Bill Clinton, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D), and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D). "Fight the Right" became the ubiquitous slogan at NOW-sponsored political demonstrations.
When female office-holders opposed Ireland's political vision, Ireland would commonly characterize them as inauthentic women. For instance, she called Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas a "female impersonator." Republican Congresswoman Ann Northup of Kentucky once observed, "The aggravation I have with the women's groups [such as NOW] is that they … act as though all women think alike; I mean, that's insulting to women."
During her time as NOW’s President, Ireland was willing to overlook even the crudest sexual misbehavior by men so long as they took the "correct" positions on "women's issues." For example, when President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for committing perjury in connection with a sexual harassment case and a sexual liaison with a White House intern, Ireland, accompanied by representatives of fifteen other feminist and civil rights groups, descended on Capitol Hill to defend him. "On balance, women have had an ally in the White House," Ireland said. "I mean, all of us knew he was a snake when we voted for him."
By contrast, Ireland launched an all-out assault against President George H.W. Bush's "right-wing conservative" Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she excoriated for his alleged sexual harassment of Dr. Anita Hill years earlier.
Ireland's hypocritical stance on sexual harassment sparked the secession of the Northern Virginia NOW Chapter from the national office. Former NOW International Director and Dulles Chapter President Marie-Jose Ragab was indignant when NOW headquarters jettisoned their feminist ideals for the sake of political expediency. "By appearing to subordinate the organization to an outside political group," Ragab said, "the national leadership has severely damaged the very interests it purports to protect. This leadership has demonstrated an unwillingness to stand up in a time of challenge and thereby has lost its ability to speak credibly on women's issues." As a result, Ragab's group joined forces with the Independent Women's Forum in an effort to "reinvent feminism," the Washington Times reported. "[T]he National Organization for Women has become a totalitarian clique that is out of touch with typical American women," Ragab said.
Soon thereafter, NOW membership, which dropped 25 percent over the course of Ireland's tenure, declined precipitously. Part of the drop-off could be attributed to the epiphany many women had when they realized that Ireland's NOW really did not speak for them. Another contributing factor for the membership decline, according to columnist Tammy Bruce, was Ireland's "social justice" activism, which had NOW "focusing on 'race, class and other issues of oppression.'" (At this time, Ireland worked closely with Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition against such corporations as Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Smith Barney.)
As a result of its declining membership, NOW also started to lose revenue during Ireland's tenure. In 1995, the organization accepted government money for the first time in its history. Writes Tammy Bruce: "From the years 1995 through 1997—while NOW maintained its strange silence on Bill Clinton and on occasion actually a direct to rebuke to Paula Jones [who had accused Clinton of sexual harassment]—California NOW received a total of $543,636 in taxpayer money from Clinton's government.... Taken together, California NOW and National NOW received over three-quarters of a million dollars ($767,099) during the Jones and Lewinsky scandal…. Instead of taking on Clinton as we had Clarence Thomas, NOW may have opted to take money instead."
In April 2003 Ireland became the director of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), despite the fact that she is not a Christian. She was a logical choice, however, given the YWCA's long drift toward the political left. In 1996 the YWCA joined with NOW in Ireland's "Fight the [Political] Right" campaign, created to counter the Republican majority in Congress and to undermine the Christian men's movement, Promise Keepers. Six months later, Ireland was fired from her post. (Ireland had made public comments that the YWCA was no longer a Christian organization, which, if proven true, would have jeopardized the $49 million of federal funding the group received each year.)
After her dismissal from the YWCA, Ireland worked as campaign manager of the short-lived 2000 presidential campaign of Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois). Today Ireland works as an equal opportunity law consultant at the Washington, DC law firm Bernabei & Katz, PLLC, which specializes in employment law.
Ireland was once a Board member of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition. Today she sits on the boards of several organizations, including: the One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit that brings technology to low-income people living in government-subsidized housing; the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a group that advances "fair and humane public policy" to "address the needs and rights of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide;" and GenderPac, a transgender organization that works to secure special legal protections for transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag queens, and "she-males."