Too Nice to Be One of 'those Women'?
01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
BACK IN 1982, WHEN THE EQUAL RIGHTS Amendment was still a hot political topic, Florida State Sen. Dick Anderson opposed ratification, and neither phone calls nor petitions would make him budge. Finally, one woman, a striking lawyer with a gentle air, came up with what then was a startling tactic: Hound the Senator into submission. Wherever Anderson went, so went she and her fellow NOW (National Organization for Women) protesters, waving signs that read, THE AMERICAN NAZI PARTY, THE KKK AND DICK ANDERSON OPPOSE THE ERA. The amendment, of course, lost—but then, come election time, so did Anderson. In a speech, he bitterly denounced the sisterhood. "Those NOW women are horrible, unfeminine shrews," one NOW member remembers him saying, "except for that lovely Patricia Ireland. I can't believe she's mixed up with them."
Sorry, Senator, but the lovely Ireland was not only mixed up with them, she was leading them—and she has been running the entire organization since Dec. 15. As the new president of NOW, the soft-spoken ex-flight attendant will begin what may well become the most critical term in the 270,000-member organization's 25-year history. Although NOW has been bolstered by a post—Anita Hill feminist reawakening (its membership has grown at three times its regular rate since the Senate hearings and Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation in October), Ireland is nevertheless facing setbacks. One is the possible reversal of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which has constitutionally protected a woman's right to have an abortion.
Now has come another unexpected flap: Last month, Ireland, 46, was featured on a cover of The Advocate, a Los Angeles—based gay and lesbian magazine, next to the headline "America's Most Powerful Woman Comes Out." In the interview, Ireland volunteered that for nearly 25 years she has been married to James Humble, 47, an artist and businessman who lives in their home in Miami, and that for the past four years she has also had an extramarital companion—who happens to be a woman. "Lots of male politicians have 'companions,' " shrugs Ireland, "but they are hypocrites and they lie about it." Her only objection to the Advocate story, in fact, is the language on the cover. "I don't like the implications of 'coming out.' It implies I've been hiding something, and I haven't." (To protect her companion's privacy, however, Ireland is not disclosing her identity.)
Not, of course, that critics are too overly concerned with Ireland's love life—hidden or not. Her professional record alone offers antifeminists fodder aplenty. Ireland has long been an ardent champion of homosexual and abortion rights. If, for instance, Roe v. Wade is overturned, as many believe likely, Ireland has vowed to call for NOW's first-ever act of civil disobedience. "We will break the law to make sure women have the right to safe, legal abortions," she says. Concludes outspoken antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly: "Patricia Ireland represents no change—NOW still has nothing to say to the average American woman."
Ironically, Ireland's background could hardly be more conventional. Born the eldest of three daughters to engineer James Ireland and homemaker Joan Filipek, a NOW member who is divorced from James, Ireland was raised on a farm outside rural Valparaiso, Ind. (pop. 24,400). In high school she was an honor roll student and a member of the pep squad. She attended the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1966 with a degree in German, moved to Miami, where she took a job as a flight attendant for Pan Am and married her college sweetheart, James Humble, in 1968. One day she noticed that Pan Am offered its male employees medical insurance that covered their wives, but Ireland was routinely refused coverage for James. "I was stunned," she recalls. "I didn't know what to do, so I called my local chapter of NOW." With the support of NOW's attorneys, Ireland confronted Pan Am. The airline immediately changed its policy—and the experience changed Ireland's life. "I learned what a great tool the law was," says Ireland. In 1972 the flight attendant enrolled in the University of Miami Law School and three years later emerged with her degree. She began volunteering for NOW, moving from local to national issues before being elected executive vice president in 1987.
Today, it is with mixed emotions that Ireland embraces her final NOW ascent. Already a self-described workaholic whose social calendar most often includes solitary dinners of peanut butter and crackers, she will have even less time for plain old fun in her new position. Though complicated, Ireland's private life, she says, is a vital source of happiness. Her bond with Humble, say those who know them, is loving and real. "I am amazed at how they can be devoted to their different interests and still stay so devoted to each other," says Ireland's mother. At least twice a month, Humble and Ireland spend time together in Miami or in Rosslyn, Va., where Ireland has an apartment, checking out museums or indulging their shared passion for ethnic foods. "When they are together, they are really together," says Filipek. As for the so-called other woman, she adds, "I don't think Patricia having a companion in Washington is a problem for James."
Whether it is a problem for anyone else is of little concern to Ireland. "I will not let the world tell me who to love," she says. "I want the focus to be on the work that I do, not on the fact that I choose to love two people."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
ELIZABETH VELEZ in Washington, D.C.