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President of NOW urges women and girls
to create change
March 23, 1998

Find whatever roles are suitable for you, speak up, speak out, and help make change, Patricia Ireland told more than 200 middle school girls and faculty and staff during a lecture March 12 in the Student Union Ballroom.

Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest feminist organization in the country, spoke during a one-day conference "Multiply Your Options," a program designed to increase girls' awareness of career opportunities in mathematics, science, and engineering.

Ireland, author of the book What Women Really Want, has been an inspiration and role model for women of all ages. She comes from a long line of women who have paved their own way in the world. Her maternal grandmother drove a car when it was socially unacceptable and shocked her town by taking a walk while pregnant. Ireland's mother founded a local branch of Planned Parenthood.

With wit and humor, Ireland talked about her childhood, discussed what women have gained since 1920, and the importance of girls becoming involved and making a difference.

In 1920, when women won the right to vote, my grandmother was pregnant with my mom, Ireland said. "In 1920, they didn't say the word pregnancy. In fact, belly was a dirty word. Pregnant women didn't go out in public. But my grandmother thought that pregnant women needed fresh air and exercise, so she sewed her own maternity clothes and went out for a walk every day," Ireland said. She also talked about her grandmother driving a car, which was unusual for a woman at the time.

"I think that many women who challenged the limits of their day, who challenged what was traditional and broke through those limits, are really good role models because they pushed beyond what people said was acceptable for women and girls," Ireland said.

Ireland talked about the progress women have made in the areas of equal pay, equal education, and equal employment laws. "We've got rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters founded and funded. We broke through all kinds of previously all-male bastions," she said.

But Ireland also said that although much progress has been made, girls today still face some controversy and conflict. "You will have to be strong and confident," she said. "We're still here in very small numbers." Ireland gave women in the Senate as an example. "In 1992, we cheered and celebrated when we tripled the number of women in the United States Senate - which sounded even more encouraging than saying we went from two to six out of 100," she said.

Ireland noted that "while most men and boys appreciate women's equality and support it, there will be some who will be uncomfortable and are going to engage in harassment. We're going to have to be strong about speaking up, being forthcoming about what we do and don't want," she said.

Ireland said that no matter what kind of job you have, "there is something you can do in that position to make continued improvement, to continue opening doors for women. She talked about her own experience as a stewardess and how she fought to get health coverage for the families of women workers, changing the policies for all women in the company.

Ireland encouraged girls to create change. "Perhaps you start it in small ways. Perhaps you start it by not laughing when somebody tells a joke that is offensive. Maybe you keep a straight face when they"re telling something they think is a joke but it's racist or makes fun of people with disabilities or degrades lesbians, gays or bisexuals, or attacks women. Just keep a straight face and say, "Maybe you can explain the humor in that, I just don't think it's funny." You'd be amazed at the kinds of conversations you can get involved in when that happens."

The lecture, held during Women's History Month, was sponsored by the Women's Center, the Women's Studies Program and the Engineering Diversity Program.

Sherry Fisher