by Shelley Golden
Between quips about the need for sex education in Congress -- "since members on both sides of the aisle think babies come from welfare checks" -- and stories about her own growth in the feminist movement, NOW President Patricia Ireland is delivering a deeper message while on a nationwide tour promoting her new book, What Women Want. In bookstores, coffee shops and countless interviews, she is inspiring women and men alike to take personal initiative in pressing for justice.
Ireland drives home her message by discussing her personal history. After college, she worked as a stewardess for Pan American Airlines -- at a time when the airlines ran ad campaigns like Continental's, "We Really Move Our Tails for You" and National's "I'm Cheryl, Fly Me!" A woman attending a book signing told Ireland the flight attendants at one airline made buttons that said, "Fly Yourself!"
Ireland's path to NOW president began when Pan Am refused to extend medical coverage to her husband, as it did for male employees' wives. With advice from NOW, she forced the airline to change its policy.
"At first I was just relieved that we had avoided some major medical expenses," Ireland said. "But then one of the other married stewardesses who had heard about it came up and gave me a big hug. `Congratulations,' she said. `We won!' That `we' had a powerful effect on me."
As she speaks to her audiences, Ireland hopes to convince women that they too can take similar, seemingly small steps and make a marked difference in people's lives.
She credits many people for her tenacity in challenging the status quo, particularly her grandparents. As she speaks, the book and the characters out of her own life come alive in a new way. For example, Ireland recounts the time police saw her Grandma Shay driving, a "breech of conduct, if not law," and called her grandfather insisting he get her off the road.
"Why?" asked my grandfather. "Is Beth driving badly? I taught her myself."
"Oh no," the officer assured him. "Beth is a fine driver. But the men are so shocked to see a woman behind the wheel that they stare at her, forget they're driving and crash into each other!"
"Well, that sounded like a problem with the men on the road to my grandparents," Ireland quipped. "Grandpa never told Grandma to stop, and she wouldn't have anyway."
Ireland speaks at length about the need for more feminist voices in the debates over affirmative action, welfare reform, sexual harassment, abortion and violence against women. Women, she believes, have the power to influence these debates, whether by running for office, writing letters to the editor or simply not laughing when friends make racist, sexist and homophobic comments.
At a speech in New York City, Ireland used the historic account of Rosa Park's refusal to move from her bus seat to illustrate a point. "Three other people on that bus gave up their seats when asked," she said. "Only Rosa Parks chose to claim her right to remain seated. Each of us can choose to be a Rosa Parks."
At her book tour stop, Ireland finds audiences that want to respond to such a call to action. Following one signing, a woman announced her intention to speak her mind when someone offends her. A young man told another man he did not appreciate a degrading comment about women. Another woman decided to attend New York City NOW's Mitsubishi protest the following week.
For NOW activists, Ireland's book is an interesting account of one woman's journey into feminist activism, told with Ireland's dry wit and keen insights into NOW's history. In perhaps the most important of many favorable reviews, The New York Times Book Review praised What Women Want, saying it is "the perfect gift for the young woman fresh out of (college) who does not yet realize what Patricia Ireland, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jane Roe won for her, and at what peril, because these gains may be lost."
Indeed, Ireland's book and tour take on even more power when one realizes -- as this reviewer did -- their tremendous potential among people who are not yet activists. Ireland tells audiences, "Wherever in life you choose to draw the battle lines, you can make an impact." One has only to imagine the changes possible when women and men who, for one reason or another have never acted on their own feminist ideals, decide to take Ireland's words to heart.