Eleanor Smeal (born 1939), one of the leading feminists in the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century, served as president of the National Organization for Women from 1977 to 1982 and again from 1985 to 1987. She was also president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and continued to organize, publicize and promote feminist issues well into the 1990s.
Eleanor Marie Cutri was born on July 30, 1939, in Ashtabula, Ohio, the daughter of Italian-American parents, Josephine E. Agresti and Peter Anthony Cutri. Eleanor—or Ellie, as she was nicknamed—was the first daughter and fourth child. Her father was born in Calabria, Italy. After immigrating to the United States, he worked as an insurance agent. Eventually the family settled in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Eleanor grew up. Raised as a Roman Catholic, she nevertheless attended Erie public schools, graduating from high school with a record of scholastic excellence.
She continued her academic success at Duke University, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1961. As a student she served as president of her dormitory and supported the cause of racial integration. After receiving her B.A., Eleanor considered pursuing a law degree, but chose not to when she learned of the discrimination against women lawyers (few at that time were accepted into law firms or allowed to practice at court). Instead, she decided to continue her studies in political science and public administration. She received a master's degree in these subjects from the University of Florida in 1963. (She was granted an honorary LL.D. from Duke University in 1991).
At the university she met Charles R. Smeal, a student in metallurgical engineering, whom she married on April 27, 1963. They had two children. After her marriage Eleanor continued work on her doctoral thesis, which concerned attitudes women voters have toward women candidates for office. However, a persistent back illness, which required a year's confinement to bed rest, forced her to abandon the study. Meanwhile, she moved with her family to the Pittsburgh area.
During the late 1960s Smeal became increasingly aware of feminist issues, particularly those affecting homemakers. She had already been confronted with the lack of day care facilities when she tried to work on her thesis with a small child. During her illness she realized that there was no disability insurance for wives and mothers. An awareness of these injustices prompted Smeal to begin research into feminism, and thus, like many other women of the period, she began reading about past women's movements, such as the suffrage campaign, as well as contemporary feminist theory.
In 1968 she began a four-year term on the board of the local League of Women Voters. Two years later she and her husband joined the newly formed—and more militant— National Organization for Women (NOW). Smeal also served in 1971 and 1972 as secretary/treasurer of the Allegheny County Council.
During the 1970s Smeal rose through the ranks of NOW, extending her growing feminist commitment from such local projects as developing nursery schools to assuming in 1977 the presidency of the national organization. From 1971 to 1973 she served as organizer and president of the NOW chapter in South Hills, Pennsylvania. In 1972 she was elected president of the Pennsylvania state NOW, a position she held until 1975. In that capacity she made equal physical education for girls a priority and was successful in having the state's equal rights statute applied in this area.
In 1975 Smeal became chairperson of the board of directors of NOW, having been elected to that board in 1973. She was also active in the NOW legal defense and education fund, particularly in the area of enforcement of Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.
On April 23, 1977, Smeal was elected president of the national NOW, by this time an organization of 55,000 persons, the largest feminist association in the world. Smeal's philosophy was that NOW should remain a locally-centered, grass-roots organization that included women from all walks of life, not just educated professionals. To this end she had worked for the establishment of the presidency as a salaried position, so that women who were not independently wealthy or supported by their husbands could serve in the post. Smeal's success as an administrator became clear when she was able to erase a substantial national debt within a year and to double the national membership within two years. She was re-elected president in 1979.
By the late 1970s Smeal had decided that ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution should be a NOW priority. The amendment had passed the Congress in 1972 and had been ratified by 35 states; however, three more states were needed before the amendment would become part of the Constitution. Beginning in February 1977 Smeal (and NOW) organized a boycott of states that had not ratified by organizations that would ordinarily have held conventions in those states. Under Smeal's guidance NOW also worked for the extension of the ratification deadline from 1979 to June 30, 1982. As part of this campaign NOW organized and led a pro-ERA march on Washington on July 9, 1979. It attracted 100,000 demonstrators. After the deadline was extended, Smeal led NOW in heavy lobbying efforts directed against key legislators in key states. But these efforts were not successful, and the deadline passed without ratification.
In 1982, barred by NOW by-laws from seeking a third term as president, Smeal turned her efforts toward writing Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President (1984). This "election handbook" focused on the "gender gap," the discrepancy in female and male voting patterns, particularly on issues of social welfare and peace. Smeal stated that if women voted as a bloc, it would be a decisive factor in the 1984 presidential election and in the long run it would be a powerful force for social change. She also urged that the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in 1984 be a woman—an idea that was realized when Walter Mondale selected Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate as a result of NOW lobbying.
In 1985 Smeal successfully sought reelection to the national presidency of NOW, urging that the organization become more militant and activist in its fights for the numerous feminist issues remaining on the agenda, especially abortion rights, the reintroduced ERA, and economic justice for women. She remained president for another two years (until 1987) and promised to take the organization "back to the streets."
In 1987 she became president of Fund for Feminist Majority, based in Arlington, Virginia. In these roles, Smeal continued to bring forward and publicize those feminist issues which she believed were crucial to the future of feminists.
Further Reading on Eleanor Smeal
In addition to Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President (1984), Smeal was the coauthor (with Audrey Siess Wells) of "Women's Attitudes Toward Women in Politics: A Survey of Urban Registered Voters and Party Committee Women," in Jane Jaquette, editor, Women in Politics (1974). See also People (August 8, 1977) and Ms. Magazine (February 1978). Two discussions of Smeal's views appear in Ms. Magazine (May/June 1995) and The Progressive (November 1995). Smeal is also listed in the Marquis Who's Who in America (1996).