It's Pat!

Ireland's brand of feminism disserves the YWCA


The selection of the chief executive officer of the YWCA, the venerable 145-year-old organization that provides a variety of social services to women and families, is an event that rarely gets much media coverage. This time, though, it's a different story: The person chosen to lead the YWCA is Patricia Ireland, who served as president of the National Organization for Women from 1991 to 2001. Ireland's appointment, announced last Wednesday, has sparked the ire of the religious right, not only because of her pro-choice feminist views but because of her perceived sexuality. In a 1991 interview published just as she took the helm at NOW, Ireland, married to a Florida businessman, disclosed that she also had a "female companion" in Washington, D.C.; the relationship was widely assumed to be sexual, though Ireland would not confirm or deny it. Now, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition gripes that it's "disgusting" to have "a bisexual lesbian" lead an organization started by "godly women."

Cultural conservatives like Lafferty are so fixated on their antigay animus that they're missing a far more relevant point. Regardless of gender, if Ireland's "companion" was her lover, she was committing adultery, though apparently with her husband's knowledge. Should this disqualify someone from a post that entails moral authority? One thing is near-certain: A married man who unrepentantly admitted to having a mistress would not have much of a future in public life. So much for complaints that women are still judged more harshly than men for their sexual behavior.

That aside, the public ideology Ireland brings to the YWCA is far more troubling than anything in her private life.

At a time when a growing number of women and men who support equality began to question orthodox feminist doctrine, NOW under Ireland's leadership remained a guardian of orthodoxy on everything from affirmative action to domestic violence. Take "pay equity." In 1998, discussing the news that women's average earnings had risen from 74 to 76 percent of men's, Ireland said on CNN, "Somebody is pocketing 24 cents. Somebody benefits from women's cheap labor."

But women are not paid 76 cents to a man's dollar for the same work. Economists have found that the pay gap is largely explained by differences in occupation, education, and time spent in the work force. It is far smaller for workers under 40, though women remain much more likely than men to curtail careers for family reasons and to take lower-paying, more flexible jobs. Of course these choices are influenced by cultural norms. But if we want more egalitarian family roles, the solution is to encourage both sexes to reevaluate their attitudes—not to tell women they're being robbed by the patriarchy.

The biggest controversy of Ireland's tenure at NOW had to do with sexual harassment. After taking the hard-line view that any sexual advance or sexual remark in the workplace should be treated as harassment if a woman feels uncomfortable, NOW found itself accused of hypocrisy when it wouldn't back Paula Jones's suit against President Clinton. Ireland publicly said that even if then-governor Clinton did solicit sexual favors from a state employee and expose himself, it might not rise to the level of harassment because he didn't threaten her job. Such doublethink led to some defections and led many people to conclude that NOW was putting partisanship above principle.

In my view, however, the most disturbing aspect of Ireland's leadership was NOW's embrace of virulent hostility toward fathers. In 1996, NOW issued an "Action Alert on 'Fathers' Rights'" accusing divorced men who seek a role in their children's lives of abusing power "in the same fashion as do batterers" and urging feminist activists to combat such proposals as joint custody and divorce mediation instead of litigation. Three years later, the top resolution adopted at the organization's national conference once again bashed fathers' groups and deplored "antiwoman bias" in family courts—i.e., the fact that some mothers lose custody cases.

This position is in stark contrast to the views of truly egalitarian feminists—including another former NOW president, Karen DeCrow. DeCrow, who believes that gender equality is impossible without an equal role for men in parenting, is a strong champion of joint custody. Ireland, meanwhile, has publicly asserted that "men need to take equal responsibility for the family" even as her organization resisted efforts to give them equal rights.

Ireland now says that she will focus on "women's empowerment" in her leadership role at the YWCA. But if her record at NOW is any indication, what she will bring to her job is a divisive brand of feminism that has outlived itself.