Patricia Ireland, the new president of the National Organization for Women, has freed herself from one major societally imposed tyranny. We are not talking about her unconventional living arrangements, nor her experience as a flight attendant who became a corporate attorney.

We are talking about being liberated from high heels.

She just doesn't wear them. A modest pump, perhaps, for special occasions like congressional hearings or press conferences, but none of those back-breaking, toe-pinching torture devices so many women voluntarily hobble themselves with.

"When I first came to Washington {in 1987}, it was hard for me to adjust, but I think I didn't realize it at first. Learning the Metro was very hard for me. Anyway, one day I was going down one of the Metro escalators and feeling pretty good about myself, about all I'd done and learned since I'd gotten here, and then my heel got stuck in the escalator. I fell over, did a 180-degree roll down the stairs, banged my leg, it was just awful. And I got to the bottom and this nice old man looked at me and said, 'Are you all right?' And of course I started crying. ... I just said this is ridiculous, I'm not going to wear these stupid shoes again."

For those who can see a parallel between spike heels and the bound feet of ancient Chinese women, it is reassuring to see Ireland's sensible plain flats.

The rest of her is dressed for success, in a tailored green suit and white blouse.

Would we describe what a male organization president was wearing?

And that's not the only unanswered question among those heaved forward by the women's movement. Women have better jobs, and more jobs, but still aren't making as much money as men. Parenting and working are still adversaries. Men still worry about holding the door for a woman; women still do most of the housework. Young women don't want to call themselves "feminists," even though they believe in the same goals.

A look at some of the topics at NOW's ongoing "Global Conference" celebrating its 25th birthday is an indication of what concerns women who will call themselves feminists:

"Violence Against Women," including bride burning and forced prostitution.

"Economic Empowerment," including "the relationship of international institutions and debt restructuring."

"Health and Reproductive Rights."

"Women and Families: Domestic partnerships, marriage, divorce, children, and military."

"Race and Culture Conflicts," including how "misogynist practices are masked as 'cultural customs' and protected as sacred."

"Backlash Against Feminism."

That was the most highly subscribed discussion group on the opening day, Thursday, when roughly half of 1,200 expected participants from 40 countries had arrived.

One of them, Annette Lu of Taiwan, said she had been imprisoned for six years of a 12-year sentence for feminist activities. Another, Aminata Diop, is seeking asylum in France, where she fled from Mali to avoid becoming one of the 95 million women who have been subjected to a premarital "purification" rite. The "clitoridectomy" would have required the amputation of her clitoris and inner labia with an unsterilized blade and no anesthesia. Beyond Talk

Ireland is determined that this conference is going to accomplish something other than talk. Unlike previous NOW conferences, the discussion groups have been given an agenda, and a schedule that is supposed to produce sub-group reports, working group reports and, ultimately, recommendations for action.

Participants also have been given guidelines for discussion behavior. They have been asked to speak personally, to "use I," rather than repeat second-hand tales. To speak slowly, because there are women present who don't speak English, and not to "zap" each other with put-downs. This is Ireland's idea too.

Agendas have been printed in Spanish and French, and translators are available. So is child care.

The more familiar trappings of a feminist conference -- the signs announcing a meeting of the Jewish Feminist Caucus, the exhibitors selling self-love kits and handmade jewelry -- are there, but initially, at least, it seemed somewhat more restrained than other confabs. More in the mold of Patricia Ireland, who has compared herself with running mate and predecessor Molly Yard as a television-age speaker versus a soapbox orator.

She could never be called the dreaded word. Strident.

If she is a reflection of today's feminist, that person would not look out of place in the halls of any corporation or congress. She sees herself as a person for the 1990s, when the women's movement will need skills more than rhetoric, to capitalize on the increasing number of women in powerful positions and to fight the trench warfare she says may be necessary to prevent erosion of rights already earned.

"Nobody is going to give us our rights because they like us, or because we're ladylike," she said. "People in power respect power."

Born in 1945 at the start of the postwar baby boom, Ireland is old enough to have believed in traditional expectations, and young enough to have shucked them.

"I grew up believing that I would be a teacher, because you can be home with your kids after school and take summers off. I tried that, teaching German in college, and I hated it. So I became a flight attendant. The vast majority of women are still doing 'woman's work,' even today, and I have done that."

In her first year as a flight attendant, her husband, James Humble, a painter, needed to have his wisdom teeth extracted. Ireland discovered that her Pan American health insurance would not cover him, even though male pursers' policies covered their wives. She turned to the local Dade County NOW for help, and got it.

She subsequently started law school at the University of Miami, flying for Pan Am on weekends and studying during the week. It is a pattern she still maintains, only now her weekend flights are as a passenger.

She spent 12 years as a successful corporate lawyer with a firm in Miami before making her avocation -- organizing and lobbying for NOW -- a full-time job, moving to Washington to become treasurer. She ran for executive vice president with Yard two years later, with the announced intention that Yard would leave after a year and a half and Ireland would take her place. She will face reelection in 18 months, and could be reelected once more for a total of nine years in office.

Her husband stayed in Florida when she moved here, and she sees him irregularly on weekends. Meanwhile, she shares an apartment with a woman, an arrangement that created a small controversy last November when it was revealed in a national magazine aimed at a lesbian and gay audience. If Ireland were a man, it might have been called a sex scandal.

Not Saying

The Advocate ran a cover story on Ireland with the headline "America's Most Powerful Woman Comes Out." In fact, Ireland neither admitted nor denied she was a lesbian, or bisexual, resorting at times to legalistic language to confound what she feels is sexual stereotyping and an "obsession with sexuality."

She lives with a woman. She won't name her or her occupation. She also has a husband, and a relationship with him. The information stops at the door -- even before the door. It seems she may actually live in two places here, one in D.C. and one in Northern Virginia -- but she won't say exactly, since she has received death threats and obscene phone calls.

"What I have described is who is in my family, not my sexuality," she said. "There is great diversity in our families today; it's not Mom and Dad and Spot and Fluff anymore." Ireland and her husband chose not to have children. She's had two abortions, one a frightening illegal one, before she met Humble.

On one level, she says she is complying with a personal desire to be honest, and to preempt a political enemy from making media hay out of a salacious discovery. On another level, there's a lesbian constituency, which is still smoldering from being purged from NOW in its early days, to be considered. On yet a third level, there is the American mainstream, which could easily accept her well-modulated tones and prim appearance, but may not be ready for a bisexual with partners in different cities.

So, whether it's eschewing sexual stereotyping or coy political calculation, Ireland chooses ambiguity. She told the Advocate she respected coming out of the closet as "an important strategy," and referred to her companion as someone she was "with."

In the biographies issued by NOW's press department, Executive Vice President Kim Gandy is described as married to "Dr. Christopher 'Kip' Lornell." Vice President for Action Rosemary Dempsey and "her life companion Kim Costanza" live in Florida, and Dempsey "earned national media attention in 1980 when she won the right to custody of her two children following a court challenge prompted by her sexual orientation." National Secretary Ginny Montes has a 21-year-old daughter.

There is no personal information in Ireland's handout.

She could be living in a Victorian companionship, "having another responsible adult who can help" around, as she said, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Reaction from NOW members and most others has been far more positive than negative, she said. Concerned Women for America (CWA), a right-wing group that claims 600,000 members, said in a press release that Ireland's revelation was just further proof that NOW represents a "militant fringe of womanhood."

Ireland said that if NOW claimed as members everyone who ever donated money, rather than rigorously purging non-dues-payers every three months, it would have a list numbering in the millions, far more than CWA. (A spokesman for CWA said its rolls are updated every two years, and include anyone who sends a financial donation.)

In any case, Ireland said, "I have been told for years that if we would not pay attention to lesbian and gay issues we could get this passed and that passed. That's nonsense."

The irony is that NOW does not seem to appeal to more radical lesbians, the "militant fringe of womanhood," although the membership is about 40 percent homosexual. In the issue of the Advocate in which the Ireland interview appeared, a columnist named Merle Woo wrote that "activists who are lesbians of color are not going to be members of NOW. ... NOW really believes that women can work within and maintain a system that is killing us."

Inside and Outside Tactics

"We must become dangerous," Toni Carabillo, a former NOW officer who's with the Fund for a Feminist Majority, said at a panel discussion during the conference.

"What may be dangerous is people like me," Ireland said later. "People who are educated, who know how to find things out, how to find out where the opposition is getting its money, who's pulling their strings, how and when to exert pressure. We're not drive-by bombings. That's the opposition."

By that she means Operation Rescue, the group devoted to physically halting operations at abortion clinics. Ireland said those tactics have produced members for NOW, especially young women who have grown up with the assumption that the right to an abortion was not something that could be taken away. NOW monitors Operation Rescue's hot lines and bulletins -- "as they do ours; a lot of our cats and dogs are on their mailing list."

The NOW approach to the abortion issue, she said, is an example of the "inside and outside" tactics the organization will continue to use in the future on other issues, a combination of visible defiance (physically blocking Operation Rescue-ers from access to clinics), legal warfare (NOW has brought three lawsuits, using three different legal strategies) and political organizing (when Louisiana enacted its restrictive abortion legislation, NOW "invaded" the state with "hundreds" of college students who worked to elect Melinda Schwegmann as lieutenant governor.)

Lobbying in Congress is virtually pointless right now, she said, because legislation that NOW supports gets vetoed. Electing different legislators makes more sense to her. "Our entire government is an obstacle," she said. "I don't want to play with the boys in the {political} parties anymore." Instead, she is working on forming a third party.

She also is aiming for a more global network. There are NOW affiliates in three other countries, Taiwan, New Zealand and Sierra Leone.

"We're coming out of a decade of being stymied," she said. There will be, she predicted, a backlash to the backlash.