Feminist Patricia Ireland was the longest-serving president of the National Organization for Women, a position she held from 1991 to 2001.
Ireland was born on October 19, 1945 in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. Her father, James Ireland, was a metallurgical engineer; her mother was stay-at-home-mom Joan Filipek, who was involved with Planned Parenthood. 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.
After the loss of Patricia’s sister, religion lost its significance for this Irish Catholic family. “My mother lost every remaining vestige of her Catholic faith,” Ireland wrote in her 1996 autobiography, What Women Want. As a result, Ireland grew up in a household that was unusually liberal for the 1950s. She herself, however, had no discernible political leanings in her youth. “I was decidedly apolitical,” said Ireland in What Women Want. “I didn’t begin my political career in college, or as an anti-war activist in the 60s. I didn’t consciously become a feminist at all, for that matter, until I’d already spent some years in the workforce.”
During Ireland’s teen years in Valparaiso, she drank heavily, abused hallucinogenic drugs, and developed a reputation for sexual promiscuity.
Not long thereafter, Ireland married her high-school sweetheart, 18-year-old Don Anderson. She then transferred to the University of Tennessee, where she graduated with a B.A. in German in 1966. After just a few years of marriage, however, Ireland, as she later wrote in her autobiography, became bored with her “quiet, stable” husband. In 1966 she underwent an illegal abortion in Tennessee and then filed for divorce.
Around that time, Ireland started up a relationship with a fellow student named James Humble. In 1967 the couple moved to Miami, where Ireland took a job as a stewardess with Pan American Airlines. Ireland married Humble in 1968 and kept her job as a stewardess until 1975. According to Commentary magazine, Ireland “partied in hotel rooms around the world” during her eight years with Pan Am.
Ireland enrolled at the Florida State University College of Law in the early 1970s, and then transferred to the University of Miami Law School, where she graduated with a JD in 1975. Next, she became a corporate attorney with the international law firm of Paul, Landy & Bailey. In 1978 Ireland moved to a larger firm named Arky, Fried, Stearns, Watson & Greer. Eventually, Ireland began doing pro bono legal work for feminist causes, which earned her the nickname “pro bono queen.”
In the 1980s, 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 Cuban exiles — many of whom had had their homes, money and property confiscated by Fidel Castro‘s regime — and Castro’s Communist agents and sympathizers. One of those sympathizers was Ireland’s friend — who later became 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. Over time, she grew to support the Communist Party.
In 1983, Ireland was elected to chair the lesbian rights task force of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). In 1987 she was elected as NOW’s vice president, and two years thereafter she was re-elected.
In May 1991 Ireland was named NOW’s acting president when the organization’s sitting president, Molly Yard, suffered a stroke. Seven months later, Ireland was formally elected to replace Yard. Among Ireland’s first major initiatives as president was a public relations campaign that targeted women’s magazines and talk shows in an effort to raise NOW’s profile and boost its membership. Moreover, Ireland developed an “inside/outside” strategy that called for working within the mainstream political establishment while simultaneously engaging in grassroots activism. To address one of her chief concerns, Ireland launched a carefully planned political and litigation strategy called “Project Stand Up for Women,” which advocated the combined use of litigation, political pressure, and a direct physical presence to defend abortion clinics from protesters and potential assailants. Also high on Ireland’s agenda were issues like abortion rights; gay-and-lesbian rights; sexual harassment; violence against women; and the anti-woman biases that allegedly pervaded America’s healthcare system, education system, and corporate structure. Indeed, Ireland worked with such notables as Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition against purportedly sexist corporations like Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Smith Barney.
Ostensibly a non-partisan entity 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. These PACs were particularly helpful to such notables as President Bill Clinton, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. “Fight the Right” became the ubiquitous slogan at NOW-sponsored political demonstrations.
In 1991 Ireland launched an all-out assault against President George H.W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, whom she excoriated for his alleged sexual harassment of Dr. Anita Hill years earlier. “His nomination is an insult to the life and legacy of Thurgood Marshall and everything that he stood for,” said Ireland. “He is an extremist. He is out of step with the majority of Americans, and he is out of step with the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.”
In May 1992 Ireland told the Advocate magazine that she had been having a lesbian extramarital affair for several years with the aforementioned Pat Silverthorn. She dismissed as preposterous the notion that she had been hiding “in any closet,” explaining that her private life simply “wasn’t news” before she became president of NOW. In her 1996 autobiography, Ireland wrote: “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.”
In 1996 Ireland worked with Democratic Socialists of America activists in California on a campaign designed to defeat Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), which sought to ban affirmative action from that state’s public sector.
In 1996 as well, a Ms. Magazine article quoted Ireland as saying that NOW “must offer a clear understanding of what it means to be a feminist organization concerned with ending discrimination based on race, class, and other issues of oppression that come from a patriarchal structure.”
In 1997, Ireland took part in a gathering where leaders of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Congressional Progressive Caucus met to discuss how the two groups might be able to “unite our forces on a common agenda.” Other participants in this meeting included Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, William Greider, Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, Richard Trumka, and Paul Wellstone.
When President Bill Clinton in 1998 was impeached by the House of Representatives for committing perjury in connection to a sexual harassment case and a sexual liaison with a White House intern, Ireland, accompanied by representatives of numerous other feminist and civil rights groups, descended upon Capitol Hill to defend him. “This president was our best option in ’92,” she reasoned. “This president was the best option in ’96. But we never thought he was the answer to our dreams.” “On balance,” Ireland added, “women have had an ally [Clinton] in the White House. If this reactionary [impeachment] campaign succeeds, the unfinished agenda of women on equality, in Social Security, pay equity, child care, anti-poverty remedies, minimum wage, Medicare, real campaign finance reform … will continue to languish in Congress.” Regarding Clinton’s deeply flawed personal character, Ireland conceded that “all of us knew he was a snake when we voted for him.”
Ireland’s politically expedient stance regarding Clinton’s sexual transgressions prompted NOW’s Northern Virginia chapter to secede from the group’s national office. NOW’s former international director and Dulles chapter president, Marie-Jose Ragab, was indignant. “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…. [T]he National Organization for Women has become a totalitarian clique that is out of touch with typical American women.”
Soon after NOW’s controversial position on the Clinton scandals, the organization’s membership, which dropped 25 percent over the course of Ireland’s decade-long tenure as president, declined precipitously. Part of the drop-off could be attributed to the epiphany that many women had when they realized that Ireland’s group did not in fact speak for them. Another contributing factor for the membership decline, according to Tammy Bruce – a columnist and a former president of NOW-Los Angeles – was Ireland’s unprecedented emphasis on “social justice” activism focusing on “race, class and other issues of oppression.”
As a result of its falling membership, NOW also began to lose revenue during Ireland’s time as president. Thus, 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 [Monica] Lewinsky scandal…. Instead of taking on Clinton as we had Clarence Thomas, NOW may have opted to take money instead.”
In 2000, Ireland led NOW’s campaign against sexist stereotypes on network television, threatening boycotts against networks that failed to make the changes that NOW demanded.
Ireland retired from her post as NOW president in 2001.
Following her dismissal from the YWCA, Ireland worked as campaign manager of the short-lived 2000 presidential bid of Carol Moseley Braun.
Today Ireland serves 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. She also sat on the boards of such groups as: the One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit organization that brings technology to low-income people living in government-subsidized housing; the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an international advocacy and domestic refugee resettlement organization; and GenderPac, which was founded in November 1996 to advocate nationally on behalf of the transgender community.”
Over the years, Ireland has had contempt for women with political views antithetical to hers. For example, she once exhorted Democrats to vote only for female candidates who were “authentic.”