PATRICIA IRELAND, former baton twirler, beauty queen and airline stewardess (back in the days when the term "flight attendant" was but a gleam in a feminist's eye), sure has come a long way.
Today, the 46-year-old lawyer from Miami is heading the National Organization for Women. Lately, though, her time seems to be consumed talking about her "nice arrangement" -- a loving husband in Miami and a loving female companion in Washington.
That's as much as she'll say about her two loves, wanting to keep her private life private. But she has had to say it over and over again since the Advocate, the nation's largest-circulation gay magazine, caught the eye of the mainstream press with the headline: "America's most powerful woman comes out."
It seems more like Ireland was outed. She has repeatedly maintained how important it is for women to be taken for who they are -- not for who they sleep with, which, in a historical context, has mostly been the way women have been judged. Ireland never told the magazine whether she's gay, bisexual or anything other than a woman working for equal rights.
So should Ireland's sexual lifestyle matter?
All things being equal, no, it shouldn't matter. But things aren't equal, are they?
Women on average still make 70 cents for every dollar that men earn. Sexual harassment on the job still is an issue that predominantly affects women, not men. Newfangled divorce laws that were supposed to treat women fairly have in many cases left women with less than the men who left them. More single women with children are working outside the home without enough money for adequate day care, health care or a host of other needs, and no hope of moving up. A woman's right to privacy in the reproductive sense may soon revert to the bloody back rooms of illegal abortion dens.
Equal pay for equal work, fair divorce laws, family leave, day care, privacy rights. These are all issues that NOW has been fighting for since it was formed 25 years ago, but all along it has also had to fight the allegation that NOW is just a front for a vocal minority of women who are more concerned about gay and lesbian rights than the unequal treatment of all women, regardless of sexual orientation. That's the perception. Thus, the stereotype that feminists are all ugly, hairy-legged, militant, man-hating lesbians from hell.
The term "feminist" has become such a dirty word that surveys show most women recoil from it. Yet in those same surveys, the women who don't want to be labeled feminist support most every feminist cause.
Which brings us back to why Ireland's sexuality is indeed an issue that can further hurt a women's movement already under attack by conservative forces that want to blame the modern working woman for everything -- from high dropout rates to increased crime.
Personally, I don't care if Ireland sleeps with a snake in her bed every Thursday. That's her business and her right. But NOW can't expect most women in this country to run to the cause of equality and pay their dues to an organization that they see as having lost touch with the everyday problems that most women face -- problems that have nothing to do with the issue of lesbian rights, which seems to take up an inordinate amount of NOW's time.
In truth, gay and lesbian rights, which affects about 10 percent of Americans, is but one of many priorities, and certainly not the top priority for NOW. Nevertheless, it has distorted public perception of NOW, making it less effective than it could be when lobbying moderate politicians.
No doubt, Ireland is ready to do battle for the cause of equality. How effective she'll be may have more to do with whom she sleeps with than who she is. That's unfortunate, but it's a reality NOW can't keep ignoring if it truly wants to speak for most women in the United States.