Smeal, Eleanor (1939—)

views updated

Smeal, Eleanor (1939—)

President of the Feminist Majority, and former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who led the national ERA campaign, discovered the gender gap in voting, and spearheaded feminist drives for more than a quarter of a century. Name variations: Ellie. Born Eleanor Cutri on July 30, 1939, in Ashtabula, Ohio, but raised in Erie, Pennsylvania; daughter of Peter Cutri (a home builder, developer, and owner of a General Insurance agency) and Josephine Cutri (both first generation Italian-Americans); graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University, 1961; awarded master's degree in political science and public administration from the University of Florida, 1963; completed work in 1971 for a doctoral degree, including a dissertation, except for footnotes and formal presentation, on "Attitudes of Women Toward Political Candidates"; married Charles Smeal, in 1963; children: Tod (b. 1964, a Ph.D. in molecular biology), Lori (b. 1968, a lawyer).


honorary doctor of law degree from Duke University (1991).

Lived in Ashtabula and Cleveland, Ohio (1939–49), Erie, Pennsylvania (1949–84) and Melbourne and West Palm Beach, Florida (1950s–66); moved to Pittsburgh (1967) because of husband's work; through books read while bedridden for a year because of back problems and complications after birth of her daughter, experienced feminist awakening (1969); joined National Organization for Women (1970); founded the South Hills Chapter of NOW (1971) and served as its president (1971–73); was a founder and member of the board of the South Hills NOW Day Nursery School (1972–77); became Pennsylvania NOW state coordinator and president (1972–75); served as NOW national board member (1973–75); served as member of the Bylaws, Budget, Financial Development and Conference Implementation Committees (1973–75); served as chair of the NOW national board (1975–77); served as president of NOW (1977–82, 1985–87); with Peg Yorkin, cofounded the Fund for the Feminist Majority and Feminist Majority Foundation (1987), and served as president (1987—).

Known throughout the nation as a leading advocate for women's rights, Eleanor ("Ellie") Smeal appears frequently on television and radio, testifies before Congressional committees on a wide variety of women's issues, and speaks to diverse audiences nationwide on a broad range of feminist topics. She has played a leading role in both national and state campaigns to win women's rights legislation and in a number of landmark state and federal court cases for women's rights.

The development of a feminist consciousness was the result of small awakenings. Smeal remembers keeping score for her father's boys' baseball team and realizing years later how much she had yearned to play instead; she remembers making Phi Beta Kappa at Duke University and being dissuaded from attending law school; she remembers spending a year bedridden after the birth of her second child and mulling over reasons why there was no disability insurance for homemakers; she remembers going to a bridge party one night to discover that every young suburban matron in the room was on tranquilizers except her.

One of the modern architects of the drive for women's equality, Smeal is known as both a political strategist and a grassroots organizer. In 1980, she was the first to identify the "gender gap"—the difference in the way women and men vote—and popularized its usage in the analysis of polling data and election returns to enhance women's voting clout. Willing to make waves, Smeal called for the women's movement, despite much controversy both in the media and the movement itself, to return to the streets in the mid-1980s to dramatize popular support for abortion rights. When many said it could not be done, she led the first national abortion-rights march in Washington, D.C., of over 100,000, and ten marches in cities across the nation.

In 1987, Smeal co-founded and became president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority and Feminist Majority Foundation. Peg Yorkin , chair of the board of the Feminist Majority, gave the foundation $10 million, the largest single financial contribution to a feminist organization in history. The Fund for the Feminist Majority sponsors the "Feminization of Power Campaign," the largest state and national campaign to focus on recruiting record numbers of feminists to run for public office. Smeal toured the nation encouraging women to run for office from 1987 to 1992 and promoted the idea that women must flood the political tickets. Unless more women run, "Women would not have equality with men in Congress until the year 2333," she warned. She also promoted the passage of gender-balance laws requiring governors and mayors to appoint equal numbers of women and men to boards and commissions.

We are determined to change the face of American politics until women are not only equal, but until there is justice in our society.

—Eleanor Smeal

The Feminist Majority Foundation specializes in education and research projects aimed at empowering women. Smeal co-authored, with Foundation staff, Empowering Women reports in business, medicine and philanthropy, and works to break the glass ceiling barring women's advancement into leadership. Moreover, as the Foundation president, she spearheaded the largest public education campaign on the need for RU-486 or Mifepristone (the French abortion pill) and new contraceptive development. Smeal traveled to France and Germany to meet with scientists and pharmaceutical executives to win release of the chemical compound, which she believed, if widely available, would reframe the abortion debate. (While RU-486 was approved by the FDA in September 2000 and was hailed by women's and family-planning organizations, it was immediately subject to condemnation from anti-abortion groups. As well, some Republicans have successfully pushed for local laws that require the offices of doctors who prescribe it to meet the same physical standards as abortion clinics: number of rooms, width of hallways, number of employees, etc., to discourage distribution.)

Smeal, as president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, also co-authored and co-produced two award-winning 30-minute videos, Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives, about the devastating impact of parental consent and notification laws, and Abortion For Survival, a documentary on abortion as a global public health issue.

Perhaps best known for her leadership in the National Organization for Women (NOW), Smeal served longer than any other president of NOW (three terms), from 1975 to 1982, and from 1985 to 1987. Under her guidance, NOW became the preeminent feminist organization in the nation. She directed a total administrative and ideological restructuring of the organization, taking it from a very small membership base to a mass membership base, and from a catalytic approach to political action.

Smeal's work at the grassroots level in Pennsylvania helped to spearhead the drive to integrate Little League baseball, to pass and then to enforce the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights Amendment, and to litigate numerous sex discrimination in employment lawsuits. With two small children of her own, she helped found a full-time day nursery school (7 am–6 pm) which provided quality child care and promoted the teaching of democracy and the scientific method. Although Smeal's dream of having a feminist group meeting on every neighborhood block was not realized, she worked to found some 54 Pennsylvania NOW chapters statewide and advocated the formation of multiple NOW units in big cities, small towns, and suburban communities.

During the period from 1977 to 1982, membership in NOW increased six-fold and NOW's annual budget increased from $500,000 to over $10 million. During that same period, Smeal led the nationwide campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and also spearheaded the drive for NOW to form political action committees (PACs). The number of NOW PACs at all levels—local, state, and national—increased during that time from 0 to 81.

Smeal was the first housewife to be elected president of NOW. She introduced the first Homemakers' Bill of Rights into Congress and fought to make Social Security benefits more equitable for homemakers and employed women. During her first term as NOW president, Smeal helped navigate passage of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and to stop the Human Life Amendment, as well as to win a congressional extension for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Her reelection as president of NOW in July 1985 was characterized by the Washington

Post as "an important milestone in the feminist movement's continuing debate over its tactics and direction." Smeal had promised to go back to the streets to demonstrate the movement's political power and popular support.

Believing one must know one's opposition, Smeal led efforts to track anti-feminist extremists. She initiated an aggressive legal strategy to stop violence against clinics and health-care workers which was victorious before the Supreme Court in the NOW v. Scheidler case. This work to counter anti-abortion extremists continues to date; the Feminist Majority Foundation's Clinic Defense project is the largest such effort in the nation.

Smeal has appeared on all network news shows including the "Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "Crossfire," as well as many of the best-known national TV shows such as the "Phil Donahue Show." Her leadership has been acknowledged by a variety of well-known publications. The World Almanac for 1983 chose her as the fourth most influential women in the United States; she was named by Time magazine as one of the 50 Faces for America's Futures in its August 6, 1979, cover story; and she was featured as one of the six most influential Washington lobbyists in U.S. News and World Report. In 1995, Smeal noted: "Before the late 1960s, women were just 3% of law students and 8% of medical students. Now, we're 40% of both. … In the 1960s, women were in only 20% of all job categories, mostly in those predominantly filled by women, such as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. … Now, we ac count for 25 to 30% of all professions. On the surface, this may seem a minor improvement. But given where we were just three decades ago, it's more like an explosion."


Carabillo, Toni , Judith Meuli, and June Csida. The Feminist Chronicles, 1953–1993. Los Angeles, CA: Women's Graphics, 1993.

NOW Times. 1977–1994.

Koeppel, Barbara. "The Progressive Interview: Eleanor Smeal," in The Progressive. November 1995, pp. 32–34.

Smeal, Eleanor. Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President. NY: Harper and Row, 1984.

suggested reading:

Davis, Flora. Moving the Mountain, The Women's Movement in America Since 1960. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991.


Schlesinger Library, NOW papers, especially 1977–82.

related media:

NOW's 20th Anniversary (2 hr. video), with over 100 celebrities, Peg Yorkin Productions, 1986.

Toni Carabillo , author of The Feminist Chronicles, 1953–1993 (Women's Graphics, Los Angeles, 1993)