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May 4, 1999

Interview with Patricia Ireland,
President of National Organization for Women

by Nicole Youngman

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, was in Mobile on April 14 to participate in a debate on gender issues with Asa Baber, contributing editor for Playboy magazine. The following interview took place after the debate, which was sponsored by Jaguar Productions.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the debate? Was it worth flying down here, with this nice gentleman just sort of agreeing with almost everything you said?
A: Well, I always like to speak on campuses; it's really the only place that I'm willing to do a debate because I think that many people look at two sides of a debate and think "Oh, well the truth must be somewhere in the middle," and of course I always think my side is the truth! But I think students in particular are really deciding who they're going to be as adults. They're figuring out what they really believe, what they want to stand for. And it may be the same as their parents ultimately, but it may not. And so I think that's a time when people's minds are a little more open. So I thought it was worth coming down. I didn't think that Asa and I had that many differences, and at the same time I felt he did show a certain defensiveness, a certain fear that women's equality meant men were going to be ignored, and I don't think that's so.

Q: I thought it was kind of funny when you came out and said, "This is what a radical feminist looks like!" because I generally don't think of NOW as a "radical feminist" organization. You folks are much more mainstream, interested in lobbying, working within the system, and that kind of thing. What kinds of issues or challenges have you had to deal with trying to work with local groups, or more radical groups, or more conservative groups?
A: Well, of course, it depends on where we are, how people see us. When we're out in San Francisco, of course, we're hopelessly retrograde. And I can remember a Boston Globe reporter saying to me, "Hasn't the feminist movement lost its edge? Isn't it the truth that African-American civil rights surged forward when people were burning cities and causing some legitimate fear?" So he was saying we were not radical enough. And then I went out to one of the suburbs and did training for skills development, and a local reporter from the suburban paper said to me, wasn't I afraid that we were going to scare the suburban matrons because we were so radical? I sort of get whiplash doing that! I think, of course, that radical means you want to change the system at its root, at its core, in its structure. And I do think that while we use some of the traditional tactics, we also combine that with some more aggressive tactics. We've engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, I've been arrested several times in Washington, and have led nonviolent CDs-- trainings and actual actions -- when the welfare women, for instance, were not being allowed to testify in Congress, and you'd look at this panel of all white, all male, older, so- called "experts" on public assistance. Along with the National Welfare Rights Union, we disrupted the hearing, and said that these women who were poor, who'd had that experience, were going to have their voices heard one way or another. And sure enough, they found time for them on the panel later, so that one of them could look them right in the eye and say, "Are you saying that because I'm poor, you ought to be able to take my child away from me?" because that's when Newt Gingrich was talking about that. It is sometimes difficult to work with local groups, but I have found that, as the backlash has increased, and increased not only in the level of attacks in the legislatures, and the efforts to divide and therefore weaken us, with attacks on poor people, on immigrants, on lesbians and gays, on a whole array of people, and as those attacks have become physical and violent, I think that there's been a pulling together in a way. And while folks in various places, like perhaps the panhandle of Florida or Mobile, may be a little wary initially, I think that we've had very good results just by our presence; we somehow diminish the stereotypes and the fears, I think. And I do think you're right in the sense that while many of the things we call for are seen as radical -- just as in the early days when we supported lesbian rights it was terribly radical and people left our organization over it, and I suspect it's still the case in some places that that's a radical position, or in calling for an equal share of power and being called "quota queens" and 'bean counters," or demanding that young women and poor women have access to abortion -- I think a number of those positions will at some point be accepted by the mainstream, just like child care, which was under Nixon a "commie plot!" He vetoed the child care bill in '72 and in the veto message written by Pat Buchanan called it the "Sovietization of American children." The right to vote was radical in its day! It was so radical that the newspapers attacked those women as "unnatural, mannish, spinsters," which I guess was as close to as they could come to lesbian-baiting in their day.

Q: Since you mentioned violent attacks on women's clinics, do you have any predictions for [the April anti-abortion protests in] Buffalo? Operation Rescue's not what it used to be, but now we have to worry about the snipers, so things have changed so much!
A: Yeah, there have been fewer massive attacks on clinics, although there have been butyric acid attacks and anthrax -- hoaxes, fortunately, at this point. And at the same time I think you're right that the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, and our victory under the racketeering laws [NOW vs. Scheidler] -- really characterizing under the law these folks as the racketeers, the gangsters that they are, the mobsters -- have discouraged a certain number of people from the violent attacks, the stalking, the intimidation, breaking into a child's school because her parent or his parent is a doctor who provides abortions. And I think that while the violent incidents really are increasing, we have finally gained some political will at the federal level to bring a halt to it, and to take these folks as seriously as they need to be taken, and I think that many local jurisdictions also are taking it more seriously. We've been very successful not only in our litigation strategy, and at the Congress with the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, but also in getting peer-to-peer work with some of the local law enforcement agencies. So for example, after the [Operation Rescue] siege of Atlanta years ago at the Democratic National Convention, we got Sgt. Carl Purden and others who had been through that experience not only to testify at our trial, but also to be in touch with other law enforcement people across the country. It's very clear to me that the Atlanta PD has a much better likelihood of actually reaching the Buffalo PD, or if the Wichita police tell the story of what happened there -- what mistakes did they make? What did they learn? -- the law enforcement will take it more seriously.

Q: Have you seen the report that PERF [Police Executive Research Forum,] did? It was a very interesting report. They got some social scientists and police executives together to work on it, and they came up with several recommendations for police departments as to how to protect the clinics and still uphold the protesters' civil rights. But one of the things that they suggested was that off-duty police officers should not work as security guards at the clinics because they felt that that encouraged the protesters to feel like the cops were too biased towards the clinics.
A: I think that's just flat-out wrong! Off-duty police in Washington, or anyplace where there are demonstrations, can work with whatever side both to gain money and also to have professional security. When we had the March For Women's Lives, which was a pro-choice March in 1989, there were very serious and credible death threats, and we could not get the federal government (the president at that time was George Bush) to take these threats seriously. The District of Columbia had their terrorist task force up on the buildings where they had some jurisdiction, but basically if we had not been able to hire off-duty police to march in the second line, and a doctor with a trauma kit, I'm not sure we would've been able in good conscience to go forward. And as it was, some people broke through the security lines and came up screaming at [former Planned Parenthood director] Faye Wattleton and [Feminist Majority president] Ellie Smeal, holding up what they alleged was a fetus, saying "Here, Faye, here's your black sister." I think that they [police] have to be able to do that. Why make that distinction when they can be off-duty security for almost anybody else? And also, I've never understood the concept that the police seem to have at the local level that they are between two warring factions, and the complete indifference in some cases to the fact that one faction is violating the law, and one is trying to uphold constitutional rights for people. In that case, yes, I think that the police in fact should be biased in favor of the people who are acting lawfully, and not charging the clinic, not intimidating the women who are coming in.

Q: Did you see your little reception [of anti-abortion protesters] you had yesterday?
A: Yes, yes.

Q: I guess that's kind of flattering; they thought it was a big enough deal to bother coming out and protesting.
A: Yes, I always wish that the level of the discussion could be brought down to a lower decibel, and yet these folks were relatively polite. One of the women followed me and wanted to engage in conversation, and frankly if I had not been so late, I would've turned and introduced myself and asked for her name, and said that I knew we differed rather passionately on the issue. But I do try, when somebody like that comes up talking to me, to not allow them to de-humanize me, and not let myself be de-humanized in their eyes, but to turn around and speak with them as one human being to another. I think it is protection in some measure, if people see you as another human and can empathize. I think it also de-escalates and perhaps contradicts some of the stereotypes. And also I think it's as a personal philosophy, a non-violent philosophy, trying to reach the better part of people and not just saying, "Well, I hate them!" and moving on. I'm in a movement for social change because I believe people do change!

Q: The religious right -- I hope I'm not being too optimistic, but it seems like they're starting to fall apart! Paul Weyrich had his thing up on the 'net recently about how there is no "moral majority" after all, and they need to just give up and be separatists and form their own institutions and that kind of thing, and Cal Thomas has his book out saying they've been wrong all this time; they need to quit and be activists in a different way. What do you think is going on? Is this an opportunity for us to maybe get some work done, if they all go back to their communities and leave us alone for a while?
A: I don't know whether it's too optimistic; your perspective that perhaps we'll be able to get some progress and some advances instead of just playing a game of defense because fighting as hard as you can just to stay even is not particularly inspiring! Necessary, but not inspiring. A lot of the religious, political right were not politicized, really, before Roe vs. Wade. It was 1973 and after that they started becoming politicized, many of them, and also strengthening their ties across some traditionally hostile boundaries, where you had a lot of the Southern evangelicals who were traditionally very anti-Catholic, or fundamentalists who were very anti-Catholic, who now had common cause with some of the northern urban ethnic Catholic populations or Catholic populations here in the South. While I know that that's kind of a wary alliance, it was a pretty strong number of people, and they linked up with the traditional business conservatives, and Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru, wrapped in there the direct mail lists from George Wallace, and that's really the coalition that ultimately put Reagan in the White House. But I think that if we look at the Congress, for instance, as a measure, or if we look at the state party structures on the Republican side, if we look in the governor's mansions, and the state legislatures, I think we'll see that there is still great political strength. I enjoy, in some measure, watching the various factions of the Republican Party falling upon each other, including the religious right vs. the more "compassionate conservative" that George W. Bush says he is, and Elizabeth Dole is trying to portray herself as, and then there's the business conservatives who just don't care a whit about social issues and wish these people would settle down. And at the same time, I just don't think that we should underestimate the power of some of the religious political extremists. They can jam; they can close down the congressional switchboards. They can turn out huge numbers of e-mail, fax, and personal messages through a network that we have yet to really establish. We have lots and lots of women's rights and feminist organizations, we don't have one or two or three central points where we can mobilize people. And we're fighting a certain complacency, a certain sense that "Oh, it's all been done and everything's okay," which, beneath the surface, is "I've got mine." And so I think the biggest challenge to us if we want to defeat those kinds of opponents is to get out our vote, to get more of us on the inside.

Q: It's interesting that you say that because some of my feminist friends who are of a slightly different feminist inclination would disagree completely, and say that we shouldn't be working in the system, voting doesn't matter, that kind of thing. Getting back to NOW, the organization's been around over 30 years now. It was '66 when Betty Friedan and the others started it. How do you think the organization's changed? What have you learned, you personally and as an organization, over time? There are an awful lot of issues that you're concerned with now that weren't being talked about.
A: Well, I think that some of the things that have changed are reflected in the new "Declaration of Sentiments for the 21st Century" that we adopted in Rochester [available on the organization's web site at]. I do think that there has been some expanded understanding of equality that all of us have gained. For instance, we lost members when we came out in support of abortion rights in the late 60s, we lost members when we came out in favor of lesbian civil rights, we lost people when we came out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment because at that time labor felt that women needed the so-called "special protective" laws. And we kept arguing as persuasively and convincingly as we could that if they were genuinely protective, all workers needed them, and if they were laws that just "protected" women out of higher-paying jobs, then we needed to get rid of them! So I think that when the Equal Rights Amendment came around, for instance, there was this very narrow focus that said "this is only legal equality: it has nothing to do with abortion rights; it has nothing to do with lesbian and gay civil rights." And I think that the concept of equality for women at this point in our evolution is that it would inevitably and inextricably include the right to reproductive freedom, the right to your own sexuality and privacy in those kinds of intimate aspects of life. But also, that violence against women is a question of equality, that you cannot participate in the civil, political, social, economic life of the country if you are facing that kind of violence, and of course we now know what an incredible tie there is between violence and womenís poverty. In one sense we've always been willing to step out and say things that make other people uncomfortable, and push to make what is seen initially as a very radical idea become mainstream. I think that's part of our role. I think that that's part of why we make some people terribly uncomfortable and others look and go "Oh, well, their ideas are mainstream!" Well, they weren't! [Laughs] They weren't when we started and we lost members because we stood up for them. But I think that one of the lessons is that we have to think very comprehensively about women's lives, that's why I'm in a feminist organization instead of a pro-choice or anti-violence or any of the other more narrowly focused groups; I don't see how you separate those issues in our politics any more than they're separated in our lives. Itís interesting, your comment about the difference of opinion about participating in the institutions that do shape our society, government in particular since they have the taxing power and the police power. It was not until I guess somewhere in the mid-70s that we formed our political action committee and took that on. I know the arguments that it doesn't make a difference, and I know the argument that you cannot use master's tool to dismantle the master's house. I think there are different roles that different people in different groups play, and I think we have to learn to be very respectful of our different strategies. I'm not sure that any of us has the ultimate answer or the ultimate strategy to success. I do know that, as much as I think of NOW as an independent political force in the country, at this point, it made a huge difference to have Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. It made a significant difference in women's rights around the world that Jesse Helms chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, in terms of getting money for family planning, in terms of "How do we deal with the Taliban? Can we get James Hormel confirmed?" This is what suits me, and I do respect other views, but for my money and my life, I really don't think that we can do it all from the outside. I think we have to have an inside and an outside strategy. And I think we miss an enormous asset and resource that we've built up over 30 years, and this is a change in NOWís work that we can now have an inside and an outside strategy. I can go to Ford Motor Company and find GLOBE, their gay/lesbian/bi organization. I can go on Wall Street and work with the women who brought suit against Smith Barney, as well as the assembly line workers who brought suit against Mitsubishi, and I think that that ability to push for change from the inside is as important in many ways as strengthening the hands on both sides. I know that when I was in my law firm, I made a difference, and I worked for a law firm that we called affectionately "Big, Big, and Pig." I had corporate and commercial clients. I did affirmative action programs for the public companies that we represented because they were federal contractors, and I did affirmative action plans that were designed to work. Because I was their lawyer, I was able to sell them and convince them that this was good business! Because I was on their side, I would say to a CEO, "Look, I'm sure you donít know this is going on, but when we did the workforce analysis, all the women who are coming in who had been waiting tables or whatever else are being put in packaging, which is unskilled labor, no upward mobility. All the men who've been pumping gas or something equally unrelated are coming in and being put into semi-skilled positions with a career path and training." And because I was his lawyer instead of the plaintiff's lawyer, he would lean back and say, "Well, you're right, and I didn't know that's going on, and I don't believe in discrimination and I'm gonna tell personnel right now that they..." blah, blah, blah. And so I think that there is a role for insiders. I've played it. It didn't suit me; I got out very quickly because compromise does not suit me! But I do think that NOW is stronger, has added violence as a priority issue, has taken a very strong stand on poverty issues, because I think that the repeal of federal public assistance is probably one of, if not the, worst loss politically that we've suffered in my adult lifetime, and I don't say that lightly. Our alliances with the welfare rights organizations and women that I know in NOW who have been poor or are's just been devastating.

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