What Women Want

Alex Kuczynski reviews Patricia Ireland's book "What Women Want".

Published June 11, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization of Women, has what some people might call an unusual domestic situation. An openly bisexual woman, she writes in her new autobiography "What Women Want," "I have a husband, and he is very important in my life. I also have a companion, and she is very important in my life, too."

What's notable about this statement is that the woman writing it is a prominent, mainstream political figure. What bisexual male from the worlds of academia, politics or industry has had to commit such a fact to print? This cultural disparity is among the points Ireland makes in "What Women Want," a book observing that we haven't come nearly as far as we think we have when it comes to gender equality.

Hers is a remarkable story: Born and raised in the Midwest, Ireland married the star of the high school football team at 18 and divorced him at 21. She graduated from college and, as a Pan Am stewardess, "had to wear red lipstick and fingernail polish -- no other color was acceptable. On the ground, our black heels had to measure at least three inches." She married again, and, when she found that her dental plan didn't cover her husband, took up the matter with the Department of Labor, and won. Inspired, she went to law school, and labored on the front lines during the major feminist battles of the '70s (affirmative action, sexual choice, legalization of abortion) and '80s (clinic terrorism, Reagan and Bush), rising to the top of one of the world's most influential women's rights organizations.

For all the heat and passion of these battles, however, Ms. Ireland's often-flat prose skims the surface -- one barely senses the roiling tensions below. Only her years as a stewardess are punctuated with the detail that make the reader understand the origins of her anger and sense of mission. ("'Hey Patricia, fix me a steak while we wait this one out.' The captain emerged from the cockpit adjusting his hat to a jaunty angle, and turned into the jetway. 'Make it medium rare.'")

Nevertheless, the story of Ireland's current work with N.O.W. -- what some might call good, old-fashioned feminism in the same practical vein as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Margaret Sanger -- is a relief in an age of increasingly gimmicky feminism, when college students brag about the empowerment of stripping on the side, and every outspoken woman or women's rights advocate employs some political, publicity-oriented party trick.

By Alex Kuczynski

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