Donald Trump has “galvanized” the women’s movement and that consequence of his presidency—if not his policies—gives Patricia Ireland hope, she says.
“There is a certain irony that our movement prospers in adversity,” says Ireland, who, as the longest-serving president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) from 1991 to 2001, has witnessed her share of bad and good times for the women’s movement.
A practicing labor lawyer in South Florida, Ireland, 71, has recently stepped down from national NOW responsibilities but still works with her local chapter, and represents unionized flight attendants of Southwest and American Airlines.
Throughout her long career at NOW and in her practice, Ireland has shown “the very best kind of leadership and lawyering,” says current NOW president Terry O’Neill. Ireland began her career in the late 1960s as a Pan Am flight attendant. That’s also when she started fighting for women’s rights. She challenged a company policy that gave the women skimpier health benefits than their male colleagues—specifically denying them spousal benefits.
After taking her arguments to the regulators and winning those benefits for herself and others, Ireland learned that the law was a tool to force change. She went to the University of Miami Law School while still flying on weekends and graduated in 1975. Shortly thereafter, she started working with NOW as a pro bono legal counsel, began serving on the organization’s board in 1980, managed activist Eleanor Smeal’s bid for the NOW presidency in 1985, and six years later won the leadership spot herself.
Less than a year into her presidency, Ireland’s sexual orientation rose up as a flashpoint, in an episode that by today’s standards might seem quaint. Pressed to say whether she was a lesbian, Ireland refused to identify herself as gay or straight.
Ireland led NOW for a decade and helped it use the courts to win meaningful victories. O’Neill says that Ireland was the “brains” behind NOW’s pursuit in the courts of anti-racketeering claims against anti-abortion activists engaging in violence and threats of violence against women’s health clinics. Based on arguments that Ireland helped marshal, in January 1994, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled a circuit court decision favoring the anti-abortion activists and allowed NOW’s racketeering lawsuit to proceed. A trial court later issued an injunction to stop their actions targeting clinics.
“I have seen such enormous progress. It’s not going to go back to where it was,” she says.
“I don’t think anybody still argues against the Equal Pay Act,” Ireland says. “There are debates around the edges but public opinion has come to accept gender pay equality as a given. I think we are not going to get pushed back as far some people would like to see,” she says.
Advice to Young Lawyers: ”For a satisfying life, be part of something bigger than yourself and make the world a better place, either helping individuals with problems or changing what is causing the problems.”
If She Weren’t a Lawyer, Ireland Would Be: “In real life, an elected official. In my fantasy life, an astronaut!”