By Robert C. Jones Jr.
At the 43rd annual UM Women’s Commission Breakfast, former NOW president Patricia Ireland urged women to find their passion and help change the world. Photo by Andrew Innerarity.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 6, 2014) – 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.”
As has been a custom at the breakfast for the past few years, Women’s Commission officers announced the winners of the organization’s two major awards.
Riana Brown, who graduates this May with a bachelor of science in psychology and international studies, received the Louise P. Mills Award. Named after the former dean of women who was a popular advisor and mentor to numerous organizations and individuals during her tenure at UM, the award is given to a student who exhibits “leadership, creativity, caring, and high academic performance.” Brown helped plan and facilitate a number of service-learning events and leadership development programs, including the Women’s Leadership Symposium and Social Justice Week.
Hilit Mechaber, an associate professor of clinical medicine and associate dean for student services at the Miller School of Medicine, received the May A. Brunson Award, which is named in honor of UM’s second dean of women who served the University from 1946 until 1970. The award is presented annually to a University of Miami administrator, faculty member, or staffer who has made an outstanding contribution to improve the status of women at the University. Mechaber serves as an advocate, counselor, and mentor for hundreds of medical students, helping them develop careers as they move toward residencies.
Rhonda DuBord, associate director of wellness and recreation, received the second Rita Deutsch Spirit of Excellence Award, which is named in honor of the longtime associate dean of students in the College of Arts and Sciences who retired last year. DuBord, who has worked at the University since 1981, is responsible for 36 club sports, more than 360 student employees, and the award-winning Mini ’Canes Recreational Sports Camp. She is a recipient of the National Intramural-Recreation Sports Association’s National Service Award for her outstanding contributions as chairperson of the National School of Recreational Sports Management.