Patricia Ireland lives her life playing against stereotype. As a girl in the 1950s, she was a tomboy. As a young adult, she took a flight attendant’s job at Pan Am, and, resisting the stewardess-as-bimbo image, successfully fought for health benefits for her husband (a groundbreaking victory in the ’60s). When Ireland became president of the National Organization for Women in 1991, she had to confront the image of NOW as an irrelevant women’s organization promoting narrow special interests. This year, NOW celebrates its 30th anniversary, and, not coincidentally, Ireland has marked the occasion with the publication of What Women Want (New York: Dutton, 1996), a personal account of her own development as a feminist.
Q: NOW’s main focus is still job equity for women. Is affirmative action really as important for women in today’s job market as it is to, say, African-American men?
A: There’s ample evidence that women are still overwhelmingly in traditional women’s jobs. It’s that old divide-and-conquer strategy that says affirmative action has really worked only for white women, and that there are only a few jobs to go around and black men have to compete with white women for each of them. We need to say: Why, in this globalized economy, are we losing jobs? Because they went from U.S. labor to slave labor in China, or to overseas workers making $1 a day.
Q: You sound like Pat Buchanan.
A: He’s good at identifying the problem. But when it comes to the solution, he’s just flat-out wrong. The answer can’t be to promote the old, discredited isolationism. For one thing, that’s bad for the consumers in this country, and would prompt a lot of artificial price increases. A better goal is to improve workers’ lives and wages around the world, and to use this country’s economic strength to do that.
Q: NOW was a strong supporter of Anita Hill and a vigorous critic of Bob Packwood. Did NOW also support Paula Jones?
A: We were supposed to have a telephone conference with her and her lawyer, but she wouldn’t talk to us. She skipped the conference call-said she had gone out shopping for a dress for court. When we asked her lawyer about why her story was first told through Pat Robertson and the “700 Club,” why she was surrounded by these very strong anti-women’s rights people, he basically said, “I don’t want to bother you with a lot of detail.”
I feared she was being manipulated by right-wingers…[but] having said that, I would say about that case exactly the same as we said about Anita Hill and the Bob Packwood women-they deserve their day in court.
Q: But should that day come while Clinton is in office, or after?
A: It’s clear to me that the reason this is going forward is politics, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an invalid case. We believe she deserves to be heard. Sexual harassment crosses party lines, and it’s not an ideological issue. I mean, Bob Packwood was good on our issues. And around the time Paula Jones filed her suit, Bill Clinton was making jokes about the Astroturf in the back of his pickup when he was a young man. That’s offensive to women.
Q: It sounds as if you’re not wholly satisfied with Clinton.
A: Whatever differences of opinion I have with Clinton — and I have been both inside the White House strategizing and outside it protesting and getting arrested — I’d like to see him return to power.
Q: What’s at stake for women this election?
A: The gender gap is still very much alive. The differences that we experienced under the Congress led by Dole and Gingrich vs. the period from 1990 to 1992 are very clear. They tried to cut the funding for the Violence Against Women Act; they have made efforts to cut family planning, to outlaw abortion and affirmative action.
Q: You’ve said you think Elizabeth Dole might be able to fulfill the role people hoped Hillary Clinton would. Could you elaborate?
A: Bob Dole has been going around the country with his little snide aside about how Liddy wouldn’t be in charge of health care, and there’s this ironic effort to portray her as a more traditional political wife. Yet if Dole is elected, she’d be the first first lady ever to have a paid job outside the White House. It’s playing on the fact that he has some political capital with people who don’t like that image of the first lady.
Q: What do you think of Elizabeth Dole?
A: I think she’s had a really good career and did some good stuff as secretary of labor. I don’t think she should be in the White House as first lady — or president.
Q: There was a great deal of controversy when you became president of NOW, because you were married to a man in Florida yet lived with a woman in Washington.
A: I’ve never said I live with a woman.
Q: You do have a sexual relationship with a woman, don’t you?
A: It’s very awkward to not want to go into great detail about how I live my life. I just try to describe my family — it includes a man I’m very close to and a woman I’m very close to — and draw a curtain around the rest of it. In spite of a cultural obsession with defining ourselves sexually, most people are more concerned about what I can do as a leader of NOW to help improve their lives.
Q: But when you became president, it reinforced the perception, right or wrong, that NOW doesn’t speak to most women, especially those raising traditional families.
A: When I became president, I found a certain frustration that What Women Want might relieve. I wanted to be seen as a whole person, and in ways that perhaps do make me unusual and different from most women. But most women probably can’t identify with someone who’s a public speaker and president of NOW anyway.
Q: What’s the good news about feminism?
A: That so many new activists are stepping forward — women and men — and a lot of them are young. I was recently in Los Angeles, and found that a lot of our supporters there are Republican businesswomen. They may stand with their party on a lot of issues, but on pro-choice and pro-affirmative action, they’re right there with us.
Q: The word “feminist” seems to make many women — not to mention men — squirm. Why not just find a new term that doesn’t have any negative connotations?
A: I would resist ever using another term — whatever term we used would be immediately stigmatized. There are always going to be efforts to portray us as ugly, hairy, humorless people that you wouldn’t want to be around. And we just continue to organize and find people who believe that “feminist” is an exquisit word. So I would encourage everyone to identify themselves as such.
Richard Blow is a contributing writer to Mother Jones and a senior editor at George magazine.