From higher wages to significant legislation such as the Voting Rights Act, feminist leader Patricia Ireland recounted plenty of examples of the “incredible progress” achieved by women during her keynote address at the annual University of Miami Women’s Commission breakfast on Thursday.
But it was a surprise Iron Arrow tapping ceremony that furnished the former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) with the most illustrative case of just how far women have come.
Wearing their colorful Seminole patchwork jackets, members of the UM honor society marched single file and unannounced into the third-floor ballroom of the Student Activities Center, where Ireland was wrapping up her remarks, and took two new inductees by their arms to lead them away. Both happened to be women. “Here comes the integrated Iron Arrow,” Ireland said, as Iron Arrow members escorted UM administrator Gail Cole-Avent and student April Barnes from the room.
As Ireland noted at the beginning of her speech, when she was a UM law school student in the early ’70s, Iron Arrow didn’t admit women—a policy she protested in the spring of 1974 by leading an effort to ban the group from law school grounds. She and a friend even formed a parody organization, Broken Arrow, inducting members who wouldn’t have been tapped into Iron Arrow at the time.
“We did end up helping to make change in the culture of that institution,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time Ireland made a stand for women’s rights. As a flight attendant for Pan Am during the 1960s, she sued her employer over her insurance coverage because it didn’t pay for dental work her husband needed, despite the fact that benefits for male employees covered their female spouses. The U.S. Department of Labor ruled in her favor.
During her Thursday remarks at the breakfast, Ireland noted the progress made by women on a national scale, but warned there is “still unfinished business.” Women, for example, still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. “We’ve not moved in closing that wage gap,” Ireland said, describing the longtime disparity as “a decade of stagnation.”
The UM School of Law alumna, who served as president of NOW from 1991 to 2001 and now practices labor law in Miami, also called attention to the opposition faced by gays and the challenges to same-sex marriage laws.
She urged women in the audience to take action on two fronts: to throw their support behind the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would remove the commanding officer’s power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases and place it in the hands of an independent prosecutor; and to send an email to Angela Corey, state attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court, expressing displeasure with her decision to retry Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.
“Determine what moves you,” Ireland said, “and take that next step outside your zone of comfort. Try something new. If someone says something homophobic, speak up. Help change the world…You’ll be so happy that you did.”