DETROIT, Mich. — Eleanor Marie Cutri Smeal first joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1970, and founded the South Hills NOW chapter in 1972. Smeal rose to national prominence while lobbying for the passage of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment and was elected to her first two terms (of three) as president of NOW at the organization’s conference in Detroit, Michigan on April 24, 1977.
Born on July 30, 1939, Smeal was raised in Erie. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University in 1961. Smeal considered pursuing a law degree, but was put off the idea when she learned about the discrimination women lawyers faced at that time. Instead, she went on to earn a master’s degree in political science and public administration from the University of Florida.
In 1963, she married Charles Smeal, a metallurgical engineering student, and the couple relocated to Pittsburgh in 1967 and had two children.
A self-described housewife in Mt. Lebanon, Smeal developed an awareness of feminist issues – particularly those affecting homemakers – while bedridden with back problems and complications after the birth of her daughter. She began to study feminist theory and history, particularly the suffrage campaign.
She later told The New York Times that, “women used to resent being called housewives and homemakers but it’s much less true today (1977). We now have a new National Homemakers Committee. That’s what most women are. It’s important work.”
Smeal began a four-year term on the local board of the League of Women Voters in 1968, but two years later she and her husband joined NOW. She served various local and state offices in NOW, rising in the ranks until she was elected president of the Pennsylvania state NOW in 1972.
She used her influence to get equal physical education for girls in school and was successful in getting the state’s equal rights statute applied. Enforcement of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments was a top priority of the organization under her leadership.
In 1973, Smeal was elected to the board of directors of NOW and two years later became chairperson.
Smeal served two terms as president of NOW from 1977 to 1982 and was the first to have been a housewife. “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Don’t call yourself a housewife, say you’re a political scientist,’” she told the Washington Post. “I say, wait a minute, I have a master’s degree in political science, but I never worked a day in my life as a political scientist. Being president of NOW is the first paying job I ever had. For 14 years I was a housewife, by every definition of that term – I have the IRS forms to prove it.”
She oversaw a complete restructuring of the organization during her tenure, changing the administrative and ideological foundations of the group and growing it into a confrontational and powerful political lobby.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution became a NOW priority in the late 1970s. The amendment passed Congress in 1972 and was ratified by 35 states, just three states shy of becoming part of the Constitution, when the measure stalled.
Under Smeal, NOW organized boycotts of the states that had not yet ratified the ERA. Aggressive lobbying culminated in a pro-ERA march on Washington on July 9, 1979, in an all-out effort by NOW to extend the deadline for ratification. An estimated 100,000 demonstrators succeeded in getting the deadline for ratification extended, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
After term limits barred Smeal from a consecutive third term in 1982, she wrote an election handbook for progressive/liberal candidates that focused on the “gender gap.” She defined and popularized the term, and the subsequent analysis and use of polling data and election returns to break out women’s voting power. Smeal asserted that if women voted as a bloc, they would determine the next presidential election. The Democratic Party embraced her idea and in 1984, Sen. Walter Mondale selected Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate largely as a result of NOW lobbying.
Smeal was elected for a third term as NOW president from 1985 to 1987.
A fierce advocate for abortion rights, Smeal again enlisted NOW activists to march on Washington in 1986. The march drew over 100,000 people and was repeated in Los Angeles the following weekend.
When Smeal’s third term ended, she co-founded the Feminist Majority Foundation and became its CEO. She frequently appears on television and testifies before Congressional committees on women’s issues.