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Whiplash From Backlash : WHAT WOMEN WANT. By Patricia Ireland (Dutton: $23.95, 288 pp.)

August 11, 1996|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is a member of The Times' Editorial Board

Patricia Ireland has recast Sigmund Freud's rhetorical question into a definitive statement. Indeed, as president of the National Organization for Women since 1991 and an activist for women's rights since her days as a flight attendant with Pan Am--they were "stewardesses" then--Ireland can speak with some authority about what American women of a certain generation and political outlook want. Equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, reproductive freedom and an end to sexual harassment and domestic violence are certainly prominent on that list.

In this personal account of her evolution from flight attendant to corporate lawyer and her involvement in NOW, Ireland makes a strong case for the power of ideas and activism to change lives.

Her own defining moment came during the late 1960s when her then unemployed husband urgently needed oral surgery the couple could not afford on her minimal stewardess salary. Pan Am's male employees could cover their wives and children as dependents then, but female employees, even those who were the sole family wage earner, did not have the same right. She considered the airline's policy patently unfair--and it was. With advice from the Dade County, Fla., chapter of NOW, Ireland persuaded Pan Am to acknowledge that federal equal opportunity laws meant the company must extend insurance coverage to dependents of its female employees as a matter of equity.

"I had never in my life been to a political meeting or demonstration," she writes, but "for the first time in my adult life, I had played a role that really satisfied me. I'd . . . put all my suppressed anger and frustration into something constructive."

Her story will resonate strongly with a generation of women whose incredulity and determination in the face of such blatant discrimination profoundly changed the opportunities available to American women in the space of a generation. But it is the limits of their generational experiences that clearly propelled Ireland to write.

While a majority of American women, polls say, agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better, most women do not ally themselves with the movement, increasingly rejecting the "feminist" label. Add to this the deadly violence against clinics and physicians who perform abortions in recent years, legislative attempts to criminalize abortion and further limit the birth control choices of American women, the indifference some U.S. senators demonstrated to charges of sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the demonization of single mothers and welfare mothers and the lesbian-baiting directed toward some women in public life.

The result for Ireland is a crisis of confidence and sense of defeat. Following the hearings on Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1991, Ireland went into an "emotional nosedive," feeling "depressed and empty." She writes that she regained her "equilibrium" and found a renewed sense of purpose by "looking back over the past few years and reviewing some of the concrete gains from the work we had done at NOW. I made a mental tally sheet of good things and bad."

This book is that list. Ireland writes with obvious passion and pain about the unsuccessful effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. As a measure of how much that defeat still rankles, she ends the book by urging "us to construct a practical bill of rights for women. . . . Some will ask whether this is the time to be looking at a constitutional amendment strategy. I would urge that the need was never more apparent."

Ireland also vividly evokes the macabre confrontations at abortion clinics across the country, including in Los Angeles, between abortion rights and anti-abortion advocates. She details NOW's strategy to neutralize Operation Rescue, for example, by making small donations to the organization, NOW was able to locate its bank accounts and later seize the group's assets to pay fines or satisfy damage judgments brought by clinics. And while NOW and other organizations ultimately won legislation making violence against health clinics a federal crime, that violence first claimed the lives of physicians and clinic workers and scared away countless women in need of health services.

As a tally of gains and losses, it's easy to dismiss "What Women Want" as just a pep talk to the movement's demoralized foot soldiers or a campaign on behalf of progressive candidates who support abortion rights and face voters this fall. It is also that.

But "What Women Want" is foremost a poignant appeal to young women, those who take advantage of the movement's hard-fought gains but reject the movement itself. Ireland clearly hopes those women will understand how tenuous she considers some of the legal gains and broader cultural changes in the status of women and how critical their support is in building on those achievements.

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