OTI Online
Winter 1997

What Women Want
by Patricia Ireland
Book Review by Carolyn G. Heilbrun


A Female Forrest Gump With Brains:
Patricia Ireland recounts her ardent leap from stewardess to feminist

What Women Want
by Patricia Ireland

Dutton
$23.95
hardcover

(photo: Courtesy of Dutton)


Women's memoirs have been lavished upon us in recent years, and the genre, while at times overwhelming, is nonetheless welcome as endowing us with long-absent stories of women's lives and struggles. It is, however, important to note that Patricia Ireland's book, although a first-person narrative, is not a memoir; one must, therefore, resist the temptation to criticize her for failure in achieving a genre that, despite some account of her childhood, she has not attempted. To judge from the acknowledgments, the book was written, or at any rate edited, by a committee; were this a memoir, so many consultants would be not only superfluous but also distinctly odd. What must, therefore, be firmly noted is that Ireland has written history, and has wisely chosen to run her account past many eyes to assure its objectivity and accuracy.

We are not exactly deluged with readable histories of the current women's movement; at the same time, the ignorance of anything that happened before last year seems to have floated quite outside the consciousness of those born after 1970. I have team-taught a class in law school where the women students seemed wonderfully ignorant of the fact that women had not been approaching 50 percent of law students until well into the 1980s. We need the history that Ireland tells, and it is particularly useful because she had a career that could, for historical purposes, have been designed by a writer of fiction.

Moving from airline stewardess, which at that time embodies every possible definition of sexism, to law student when law schools considered women worthy only to be stewardesses, to fighter for the Equal Rights Amendment and leader of NOW, Ireland is a female Forrest Gump with brains. When we add to this that she has been pilloried as lesbian-or bisexual, depending on which word struck reporters as more shocking-we begin to see that what we have here is a readable history of how life for women in the United States changed between the years 1967, when she headed for "the friendly skies," through the presidency of NOW to the trial of Paul Hill for the murder of an abortion doctor. Sadly, it's not a role the female counterpart of Tom Hanks is likely to play.

Contemplation of what was expected of air stewardesses serves nicely to put the recent gains of feminism into perspective; it is easier to remember that blacks could not eat at lunch counters in the South than how women were belittled as recently as 1970. Ireland recalls the "pimpish" air about interviews with prospective stewardesses; she was probably hired because her particular interviewers liked women tall and brunette. Constantly reminded that they were expendable, the Pan Am stewardesses had their hair cut by the company, and were assured that in learning how to serve scotch on the rocks and to make men comfortable they were preparing themselves to be good wives. In their compulsory girdles and three-inch heels, the women were expected to reassure passengers with their "maternal" presence, although those who gained weight or became mothers were fired.

Ireland's leap from stewardess to feminist began with Pan Am's refusing her the same medical benefits for her husband that male employees received for their wives. Her anger at this double standard led her to call the local chapter of NOW; she was advised to call the Department of Labor, since any company doing federal contract work was covered by equal-employment laws. Pan Am, which had scorned her request, now told her it had been a "misunderstanding." This example is designed to enlighten the many who claim these days that feminism has done nothing for women, as well as to record one of the many ways feminist illumination descends.

Ireland's decision to go to law school was made more in search of rewarding employment than as a stage in the fight for women's rights. Yet she soon discovered that law schools, even in 1972, were within their rights in refusing admission to women because they were women. At the University of Florida Law School, where Ireland began her law education, there was a tradition of men's loudly shuffling their feet whenever an unknown woman -- one assumes female librarians and cleaning women were tolerated -- entered a room and of keeping this up until she left. In 1967 a woman had entered the law library and had not left. In the male frenzy that ensued, the men did $40,000 worth of damage, but the campus police arrived only to remove the woman; the men received no punishments or sanctions of any sort. Five years later, Ireland encountered, among many sexist professors, one who advised his students to choose juries by looks: "Some of my best dates have come from my juries."

To follow Ireland's subsequent career -- she switched law schools, and worked for a while for a "white shoe" firm -- is to understand how effective feminists are formed, and how much can be accomplished by ardent and wearying political work. Ireland became aware of battered wives -- the term had not yet entered legal language -- and of their lack of recourse within the law. She joined NOW, fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, and explains in this book the importance of that apparently, upon hindsight clearly, hopeless fight. The battle for the ERA developed feminist consciousness and grassroots political training for many women who contributed enormously to all the political gains made for women in subsequent years.

As an officer in NOW, and eventually president, Ireland bore the nastiness, the mean assaults offered by the media and anti-feminist men and women to any woman identified with feminism. Still married to the supportive man for whom she had wrangled health insurance from Pan Am, she lived in Washington with a woman. Publicity on this score was far more interesting to the media than what she had accomplished politically: This is the price of feminism in this country, perhaps everywhere, and it might as well be recognized.

The penalty for challenging gender stereotypes is great; it is to Ireland's credit that she conveys not only the costs but also the rewards, of which the friendship of intelligent and courageous women is perhaps the greatest. It is that companionship that has both enabled Ireland to produce this book and her readers to learn, or to be reminded, of how far we have come.


CAROLYN G. HEILBRUN is the author of The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (Bantam), as well as the Amanda Cross mysteries. She was Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities at Columbia University and has served as president of the Modern Language Association and vice-president of the Authors Guild.


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