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Taking a Stand for Women and Children

August 09, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — At dusk, as rats brazenly begin scurrying across the brick walkways of Lafayette Park across from the White House, the fasting president of the National Organization for Women begins a nightly ritual of protest against President Clinton signing the welfare reform bill.

Weak and suffering shortness of breath, Patricia Ireland will end her water and vitamins diet Saturday morning, 10 days after the onetime Pan American World Airways stewardess-turned-national feminist began the demonstration, angry with Clinton's decision to sign.

"Certainly as a lot of religious groups have joined us and talked about the power of prayer and miracles, there is some hope that he might find it in his heart to change his mind," she says. "But I do think that's an unlikely scenario."

Protests were daylong, at first, with Ireland and a handful of NOW staffers assembling across a closed section of Pennsylvania Avenue with whatever homeless park residents and sympathetic tourists who happened by. Now they assemble at noon and hold a candlelight vigil each night.

There were maybe 40 people on hand Wednesday evening. A sympathetic Rev. Jesse Jackson joined in the protest outside the White House. But the media has paid little attention.

Meanwhile, Clinton and his family flew off to a vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Wednesday.

Although Ireland and her protesters have seen White House staffers peering at them from windows, she has no idea if the president is even aware or concerned about what she is doing.

A veteran of many nonviolent and civil disobedience protests, with a record of arrests under her belt, Ireland, 50, has never fasted before. "I've been anxious to go as long as I could," she says. Around her neck is a long, purple ribbon, a symbol linking her to the suffragettes 70 years ago, who fasted as they demanded the right to vote. Ireland's plan originally was to shun food until Clinton acted on the bill, which will give states broad authority over welfare programs, requiring recipients to find work in two years as benefits end in five.

While Clinton criticized the bill's reduction in the food stamp program and denial of benefits to legal immigrants, he said it was a historic chance to end welfare dependency.

Critics have cited studies showing that up to 1.1 million children may fall below the poverty line as a result.

"We will make sure President Clinton knows that women want to end poverty--not punish poor women and their families," says Ireland.

But the effects of not eating are beginning to show. Ireland's 5-foot-8-inch, 145-pound frame sags a little, and her clothes look baggy. Now, when Ireland does radio interviews, she writes down sound bites ahead of time and goes over and over them.

"In the middle of a sentence, I'm going--'I can't figure out where I was going with the sentence, what was the question,' " she says.

And lately, hunger has really begun gnawing at her.

But when it became clear that there would be a delay in the bill signing--at least until after the Republican National Convention--she cited a multitude of "irons in the fire" in deciding to end her fast.

On Saturday, Ireland meets in Los Angeles with opponents of Proposition 209, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, and then she joins abortion rights activists in San Diego outside the GOP convention.

Meanwhile, she is calling on others to join the Washington-based fast, if only for a day or a week. NOW Vice President Karen Johnson, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel and nurse who was raised on welfare, has matched Ireland's fasting day for day and intends to carry on indefinitely.

"I am very angry right now and I feel betrayed that he promised he wouldn't do anything to hurt children," Ireland says of the president, adding that she believes he acted out of political expediency.

But at the vigil Wednesday night, human rights activist Dick Gregory, a veteran of more fasting protests than he can remember, cautioned that protesters must guard against bitterness toward Clinton.

"You don't fast to make bad people good people. You don't fast to change the hearts and minds of tyrants," he said. "You fast to create a positive force where other positive forces can join."

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