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NOW President Ireland Visits Institute

By Katie Jeffreys


Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, spoke to an audience of about 40 on Wednesday.

The Tech had the opportunity to sit down with Ireland after the talk to discuss issues relevant to the MIT campus and the broader goals of NOW.

Ireland said that NOW has chosen reproductive freedom rights as the issue to organize around because reproductive freedom rights act as a symbol for many other human rights, such as the right to self-determination, health, and equality. It is a “metaphor for the attacks that are coming on so many of our rights,” Ireland said.

Ireland offered infringements on civil rights in Florida during the presidential election and President George Bush’s repeal of environmental and workplace regulations as other examples of attacks on human rights.

In addition, Ireland said that people can rally around the cause of reproductive freedom. Ireland feels that using Social Security, for example, would be a harder sell than abortion rights. Because abortion is a “personal issue,” Ireland said, it can serve as an issue around which people will organize for a broader purpose.

“The more activism on all these issues, the more likely we are to succeed,” said Ireland. Attention to the issues translates to congressional awareness and action, so rallying around a cause, Ireland said, “encourages people to feel empowered” and helps to mobilize them.

The cause of reproductive freedom also allows people to share stories, build networks, and collect funds, Ireland said. She cited the example of one Northeastern student who asked her friends to each donate five dollars to help subsidize her bus fare to a reproductive rights rally. In return, the student would carry a sign that said she was marching for those who donated.

Communication is key

The movement also gives people the “ability to talk about reproductive freedom,” said Ireland. That ability carries over to an ability to discuss sexuality on a broader level.

Recently MIT students held a signature drive to bring back date rape awareness programs during orientation. Ireland said she was “shocked that the programs were removed from orientation.” She felt that such programs facilitate positive relations between men and women. “There is a value to having good communication between young men and young women,” Ireland said.

Ireland feels that these programs can open channels of communication between the sexes. “Sometimes just the discussion itself acts as a preventative measure,” Ireland said. She cited the transition to college life as a time when “people try out different things and make mistakes that can have deadly consequences.”

She asked men to remember that “if you’re with a woman who is so intoxicated she isn’t able to give real consent, you had better not act.” In addition, women must know that “certain things you do can increase or decrease your risk,” Ireland said. But that doesn’t mean you deserve it.”

Ireland thinks that better communication leads to better sexual relationships overall. “If you’re ambivalent, don’t do it -- it won’t be good,” she said. “I think you should have good sex!”

Women in science report important

Ireland spoke about the report written two years ago about women in science, stating that “it took an enormous amount of courage” on the part of the women involved to come forward with their complaints. The women who filed the report took a huge risk, Ireland said. “[Members of] the scientific community in general are particularly unhappy about having any public spotlight put on them in a negative light,” she said.

She has shared the report with women at other institutions because the women behind the report act as role models for their willingness to take risks and think independently.

“I was really intrigued by the whole process,” Ireland said. “They are scientists -- they were going out with tape measures and measuring desk space.” Ireland noted that women on the inside know best how to sell desired changes to others.

Inequality reparable

Ireland said there was no panacea when it comes to remedying the inequality women experience in the areas of science and engineering. She suggested starting young, with programs such as NASA’s Girls in Science program. Girls must not be discouraged that they are the only female in their science class, Ireland said.

Ireland related an experience she had at DePauw while she was a student there in 1963. She had been a math major, and asked what she considered an intelligent question in class. The professor responded by saying, “Why do they expect me to teach calculus to girls?” The experience drove her from mathematics, and she became a liberal arts major.

Ireland emphasized that men -- or any other group in power -- have to be willing to give up some privileges which make it easier for them to succeed. “If you wanted to be a surgeon or welder, you could eliminate half the population [by eliminating women as competitors] -- ‘I don’t have to compete with them because they’re girls,’” she said.

Ireland criticizes President Bush

Ireland is critical of President Bush’s new policies. “If you are a woman you have to wear a dress or skirt in the White House,” Ireland said.

Ireland also cited the Bush administration’s requirement that RU486, the so-called abortion pill, undergo further scientific testing, while Viagra was not required to undergo similar tests, despite evidence it has caused death or blindness in many users.

Bush’s presidency could potentially impact reproductive rights as well. “The worst thing he can do to us is tip the Supreme Court further to the right,” Ireland said. If Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired, leaving a Supreme Court seat open, it could be filled by someone amenable to overturning Roe v. Wade.

Nathan Collins contributed to the reporting of this story.