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National NOW Times >> Summer, 2001 >> Article

Viewpoint

As feminists battle ultra-conservatives in the White House, Congress and the courts, the National Organization for Women (NOW) prepares to bid farewell to its longest-serving president, Patricia Ireland. Due to term limits, Ireland is retiring after more than ten years as president and fourteen as a national officer.

From forcing reopening of the Thomas hearings after Anita Hill’s revelations to the spirited protests outside the Ashcroft hearings, Patricia Ireland has been in the forefront of the fight for women’s rights. NOW’s work, under Ireland’s leadership, has expanded to form strong and effective working relationships with the civil rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, welfare and poverty rights, and disability rights movements.

Organizing successful special issue and constituency conferences has been an effective outreach strategy during Ireland’s tenure. She has been the prime architect of NOW’s global feminist programs and presided over NOW’s first-ever Global Feminist Conference, which coincided with the organization’s Silver Anniversary Celebration. The week-long conference and anniversary events were attended by a thousand-plus participants who came from more than 45 countries. During Ireland’s term, NOW organized two young feminist conferences, the Women of Color and Allies conference and the Lesbian Rights Summit.

Through her presidency, NOW’s in-the-street activism and visibility soared with five national actions targeting reproductive freedom, the radical right-wing, violence and poverty. Ireland organized the 1992 We Won’t Go Back! March for Women’s Lives with its record-breaking crowd of more than 750,000 abortion rights supporters in Washington D.C. She spearheaded the first national action to protest violence against women in 1995, also in the nation’s capital. The very next year, Ireland coordinated the March to Fight the Right in San Francisco, proving that national actions can be held (way) outside of the Beltway. NOW sponsored U.S. participation in the World March for Women 2000, worldwide actions to end poverty and violence against women. And just six months later, Ireland led the Emergency Action for Women’s Lives, NOW’s first national action and the kick-off of a four-year campaign to boot Bush and his right-wing cronies out of office.

Ireland has campaigned tirelessly for feminist candidates. She implemented the Elect Women for a Change campaign that raised more than $500,000 and generated thousands of volunteers for feminist candidates at the local, state and federal levels in 1992. The result was the tripling of women in the U. S. Senate and near doubling in the House, and a third of the women were women of color. Under Ireland’s leadership, the NOW Political Action Committees have developed grassroots training, including the Political Institute, so successful at the 2000 National NOW Conference, that it will be back by popular demand in the 2001.

As NOW’s president, Ireland has led ground-breaking programs and kept NOW on the cutting-edge of feminism, with bold steps and innovative strategies. A tireless advocate for women’s reproductive freedom and bodily integrity, Ireland developed and directed Project Stand Up for Women, NOW’s international clinic defense program which trained and mobilized thousands of community activists to defend women’s access to reproductive health services. As an activist attorney Ireland helped conceptualize and implement NOW’s effective litigation strategy to stem anti-abortion terrorism, including the successful use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in the landmark NOW v. Scheidler case.

Ireland’s involvement in that case began in 1986 when she was legal counsel for Florida NOW. Outraged by the violent invasion of the Ladies Center women’s health clinic in Pensacola, Florida, Ireland began arguing that RICO applied to anti-abortion mobsters and thugs, a position ultimately adopted by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court.

Ireland returned to Pensacola to mobilize, and mourn with, activists following the murders of Dr. David Gunn (in 1993), and Dr. Baird Britton and Jim Barrett (in 1994). Jim and June Barrett (who was wounded in the attack) were Escambia NOW members and clinic escorts. Ireland also traveled to Massachusetts following the 1995 attacks on Boston area clinics that left two dead and five injured.

NOW used the public spotlight resulting from these devastating tragedies to force legislative action. The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and the Violence Against Women Act (passed in the wake of the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman) are two key congressional victories won at great cost during the last ten years.

Spurred by increased anti-abortion violence and mounting legal restrictions, Ireland spearheaded NOW’s foray into nonviolent civil disobedience, working to develop a consensus on NOW’s principles and helping to train activists across the country. Ireland and other feminists held an illegal speak out in front of the White House, the first of several to protest the Supreme Court’s 1992 Casey decision further limiting the constitutional right to abortion. In the last decade, NOW has organized or participated in nonviolent civil disobedience to protest discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the military and attacks on poor women.

Almost immediately after taking office, Ireland began work with poor women to combat punitive reform of public assistance programs. Prior to the 1992 March for Women’s Lives, Ireland met with poor women activists to begin building the relationships and trust necessary for effective work together. The 1993 National NOW Conference hosted the organization’s first town meeting on women’s economic survival. In November of that year, NOW and welfare rights organizers protested, marched and pressured top White House and congressional leaders demanding that poor women be included in the debate and decisions on the issues that affect their lives. NOW sponsored a tax-day speak out against so-called welfare reform in 1994. In 1995, Ireland and four activists were arrested in the Capitol rotunda during a peaceful protest against punitive welfare measures, and Mother’s Day actions were held to denounce poverty.

NOW and its coalition partners were twice successful in efforts to encourage President Clinton to veto punitive welfare bills. On July 31, 1996, when President Clinton announced he would sign a bill, which Ireland characterized as a repeal of welfare not a reform, NOW launched the Hungry for Justice campaign with a demonstration by hundreds in front of the White House. Ireland, with NOW’s other officers, staff and activists, began a fast to protest Clinton’s action and "to enhance our understanding and commitment to ending poverty."

NOW activists maintained a 21-day vigil across from the White House urging the president to veto the bill. Activists held lunchtime speak outs and nightly candlelight vigils to protest the end of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Protesters outside Clinton’s fundraising birthday parties dressed as Marie Antoinette and carried signs saying, “Let them eat cake!” while simultaneous demonstrations by NOW chapters were held across the country

Following Anita Hill’s allegations against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and the successful campaign to oust Robert Packwood from the U.S. Senate after more than two dozen women came forward with sexual harassment charges, countless women were inspired to tell their own stories about workplace harassment and discrimination. These problems loomed even larger for poor and low-income women as the safety net was ripped from under them. Realizing that a comprehensive campaign to address these issues was sorely needed, Ireland implemented the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign, a national, pro-active project aimed at stopping sexual harassment and other workplace abuses through public education and public pressure.

From automobile assembly lines in Normal, Illinois, to stockbrokerage firms on Wall Street, from strawberry fields in Watsonville, California, to military training grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland, from public utilities in Detroit, Michigan to U.S. Post Offices in towns and cities everywhere, NOW has been relentless in its pursuit of fair employment practices. And Ireland has traveled the country to work with women who have suffered workplace abuses. Since the campaign was launched in the spring of 1997, NOW has named four Merchants of Shame, businesses that are targeted for direct actions and consumer pressure campaigns as a result of their bad track records of harassment, discrimination or assault in the workplace.

NOW’s successes and innovative campaigns during Ireland’s presidency could fill a book. She has been an articulate advocate in the media, giving NOW and feminism unprecedented national exposure, and putting an intelligent, compassionate and likeable face on our much-maligned movement. She has done more than perhaps any other modern leader to build bridges among progressive movements, galvanizing and strengthening NOW and feminism. Ireland has led NOW with grace, dignity and integrity even in the hardest of times, facing-off against women’s rights opponents with her persuasive presentation and unquestionable knowledge of the issues.

Ireland has inspired a new generation of activism by working with young women and men on hundreds of campuses, 30 in the month before the Emergency Action alone. And she has tapped into a core of discontent and determination in mainstream women by sharing the personal experiences that brought her to feminism in her successful book "What Women Want."

Thanks to Patricia Ireland’s vision and dedication, NOW’s next president will have a strong foundation upon which to build.

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