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12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By EVAN GAHR
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The question has puzzled everyone from Freud to Seinfeld, but Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, has finally determined What Women Want. And guess what? It's the feminist agenda. According to Ireland, women from all walks of life, of every disposition and temperament, are united in their desire for abortion on demand, even tighter sexual-harassment laws, "gender equity" in high-school sports, lesbian rights, and welfare as we know it.

In her book What Women Want (Dutton, 323 pages, $ 23.95), Ireland explains how her personal metamorphosis from airline stewardess to bisexual professional feminist provides instruction to millions of women -- a grandiose undertaking, maybe, but perfectly sensible if you assume, as the author does, that your every experience is fraught with social significance and must be interpreted as a mandate for feminism.

And it is not only Ireland's experiences: She manages to turn her family tree into a feminist tablet. Early in the book, readers are introduced to her grandmother, a feminist who didn't realize it. It seems that the lady shocked neighbors during her two pregnancies by exercising in public and flaunting her swollen belly, at a time when "decent women did not parade it around for others to witness." This, Ireland says, may have been dismissed "as individual eccentricity" but was actually a blow for female self- determination. Throughout history, "small statements of desire for individual freedom" have been made "defiantly by women . . . and dismissed by neighbors as mere displays of quirkiness." And there you have it: Neighborhood weirdos down the ages were, if women, the Simone de Beauvoirs of their times.

Despite her grandmother's clarion call, Ireland enjoyed a rather conventional girlhood. Raised Catholic in a relatively conservative Indiana household, she went through a tomboy phase but quickly shed her mannish accouterments "to wear skirts again, to follow the traditional path laid out for a schoolgirl in the late 1950s." A cheerleader, she "embraced the external formalities of femininity, its appearances, behaviors, look, and feel."

Nevertheless, social convention made young Patricia uneasy. And her objections were more than intellectual: She was apparently a bit free- spirited about sex and resented the "double standard" under which her male equivalents were admired while she was "socially trashed."

This budding sensibility aside, she was essentially a 50s girl -- even marrying a high-school football player at age 17. The two attended the University of Tennessee together, but the marriage quickly unraveled and ended in divorce. Ireland finished her undergraduate degree and did graduate work for a teaching career. Eventually she decided it wasn't for her and in 1967 dropped out.

With her career options limited, she took a job as a stewardess with Pan Am. Forced to endure "everything from whistles to virtual molestation [by] airline employees and passengers alike," she felt powerless in the face of blatant sexual harassment. Yet she managed to grin and bear it, accepting these indignities as the price of the "economic independence denied to our mothers and grandmothers."

There were occasional acts of rebellion -- baby steps. She complained to management (unsuccessfully) that stewardesses, when on the ground, were required to wear pillbox hats -- "utterly useless hats [that] invariably mashed our hair into a rat's nest of tangles." But the real turning point came when her new husband needed his wisdom teeth pulled. The airline's dental insurance did not cover the spouses of female employees.

With a quick call to NOW, Ireland learned that, as a federal contractor, Pan Am was "bound by . . . equal employment laws to cover you." The company succumbed -- and Ireland was flush with victory over the "power establishment. "

But hadn't the "power establishment," in the form of the federal government, taken her side? Hadn't it obligated a private company to cough up dental coverage for her husband? Nuances like this -- which don't fit Ireland's view of women as perpetual underdogs and victims -- get lost in the epiphanies.

After years of not rocking the boat, Ireland began to see herself "as someone who could actually be part of making a difference -- not just for myself but for other women as well." The Pan Am/tooth caper "had been my first and only real incursion into the legal battlefield, but I was hooked." So off she went to Florida State University Law School, from which she graduated in 1975. With the help of a male professor, she landed a job at a top Miami firm, Paul, Landy.