What Women Want : NOW President Traces Her Path to Power


by Guest Writer Sarah Hemphill

As NOW celebrates its 30th anniversary, NOW President Patricia Ireland describes her own path to power, the struggle for feminist progress and her vision for the future in the new book What Women Want, to be published by Dutton in June.

The book traces Ireland's life from rural Indiana to her stint as a stewardess and the personal and political empowerment that eventually catapulted her to the pinnacle of this country's feminist movement.

Ireland comes from a long line of women who have challenged women's traditional roles in society. Her paternal grandmother took to the air in an open cockpit bi-plane with her five-year-old son in her lap. Her maternal grandmother defied police by driving a car; it was legal but still socially unacceptable for women. And she shocked the town by taking a walk -- while pregnant. Her mother, a devout Catholic in her youth, founded the local Planned Parenthood.

After growing up in Valparaiso, Ind., Ireland worked her way through an early marriage, a divorce and jobs as a waitress and can-can dancer. But it was her job as a stewardess for Pan American World Airways that launched her career as a feminist political leader. It was an era when women were forced into girdles and pillbox hats, fired for getting pregnant and faced with advertising campaigns that proclaimed: "We really move our tails for you!"

When Ireland's husband, James Humble, needed expensive dental work, she discovered that Pan Am would not cover him under her employee health plan -- although it did cover the wives of her male coworkers. Ireland fought Pan Am and, with the help of the local NOW chapter and a then-new affirmative action law, won equal benefits. This victory gave her a taste for winning.

Empowered, she enrolled in law school and finally left the airline with her degree in hand. She became a partner in a Miami law firm and earned a reputation as a savvy negotiator. Ireland's legal prowess got her actively involved with NOW as pro-bono counsel and political strategist on many fronts, including the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1991, she became NOW's president.

A feminist crusader in the tradition of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ireland addresses controversial issues in light of her own experiences: standing up to sexist professors and coworkers, organizing for the ERA, defending women's health clinics against anti-abortion terrorists and learning the politics of a male-dominated and increasingly conservative Washington.

At a time when some women are fearful or uncertain of what the future holds, how to fight back and how to achieve power and control over their own lives, Patricia Ireland stands as an exemplary mentor and leader. What Women Want shows how far women have come and how far yet we have to go. It is an articulate, inspiring and convincing testament from the paramount voice in feminist politics.

What Women Want is about empowerment -- political and personal. Ireland, by turns serious and funny, discusses how important it is that women answer the question, "What do I want?" and go after it with everything they have.

Schedule of Bookstore Discussions and Signings


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