Eleanor Smeal was born as Eleanor Marie Cutri on July 30, 1939 in Ashtabula, Ohio. Raised as a Roman Catholic by Italian-American parents, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in 1961, and a master’s degree in political science/public administration from the University of Florida in 1963. Also in ’63, she married Charles Smeal, a metallurgical engineering student whom she had met at school.
From 1968-72, Eleanor Smeal served on the board of the local League of Women Voters in the Pittsburgh area. In 1970 she joined the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW), where she quickly rose through the ranks, serving as organizer and president of the South Hills, Pennsylvania chapter from 1971-73; president of the Pennsylvania state chapter from 1972-75; a national board of directors member from 1973-77; and three terms as NOW’s national president from 1977-83. In 1979, Time magazine named Smeal as one of the “50 Faces for America’s Future,” and in 1983 The World Almanac rated her as the fourth most influential woman in the United States.
Smeal has long been a supporter of Title IX, a 1972 law stipulating that in all federally funded schools, the money given to female sports teams must proportionately match what is given to male teams—even in cases where the female squads generate far less revenue than their male counterparts.
During her tenure as NOW’s president, Smeal led an unsuccessful campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. As part of this campaign, NOW organized and led a pro-ERA March on Washington on July 9, 1979. It attracted some 100,000 demonstrators.
In 1980 Smeal spoke at an event heralding the formation of a new Socialist Caucus of delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Joining her at the podium were such notables as Julian Bond, Cesar Chavez, John Conyers, Michael Harrington, and Gloria Steinem.
In 1984 Smeal published Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President, an “election handbook” that focused heavily on the “gender pay gap” and encouraged women to vote as a bloc for Democratic political candidates. She also urged the Democrats to name a woman as their vice presidential candidate; that year, largely as a result of NOW lobbying, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.
In 1985 Smeal ran for the office of NOW’s national president and emerged victorious, pledging to make the organization more militant in its pursuit of unfettered abortion rights, the reintroduction of the ERA, and economic justice for women.
In 1986 Smeal organized and directed America’s first national abortion-rights march in Washington, D.C., an event that drew more than 100,000 participants.
Smeal left NOW in 1987 because she now deemed it too conservative for her taste, and she became president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) — an organization dedicated to “advancing the legal, social and political equality of women with men, countering the backlash to women’s advancement, and recruiting and training [new] young feminists.”
Condemning what she termed the “medical McCarthyism” of those who sought to withhold the abortifacient mifepristone (a.k.a. “RU 486”) from the U.S. market, Smeal in 1988 launched a campaign pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to approve it. That approval eventually came on September 28, 2000.
In 1989 Smeal spearheaded the establishment of the National Clinic Defense Project to counter the efforts of pro-life activists to shut down abortion clinics. She also promoted the Freedom of Access to [Abortion] Clinic Entrances Act (1994); was the chief architect of Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, a Supreme Court case in which FMF demandedg buffer zones to protect abortion clinics (1994); and led the implementation of FMF’s Choices Campus Leadership Program to train pro-abortion student activists at colleges nationwide.
In 1991 Smeal was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree by Duke University.
In November 1993, Smeal testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, where she called for the ratification of the Violence Against Women Act. In her testimony, she described women as “a class of persons who have been historically discriminated against and … treated as inferior throughout time.” “Violent crimes against women,” Smeal added, “are of an epidemic proportion … [forcing] women to live in constant fear of [sic] their physical well-being and indeed their lives.”
In its November/December 1996 edition, the publication Democratic Left listed Smeal as one of numerous “Democratic Socialists of America activists in California” who were “deeply involved in the unsuccessful struggle to defeat Proposition 209,” the California Civil Rights Initiative that outlawed affirmative action in that state’s public sector.
Smeal emerged as one of President Bill Clinton‘s staunchest defenders during the Paula Jones sexual-harassment scandal of 1997. By Smeal’s telling, the Jones affair was nothing more than a “put-up job by the right wing.” On September 24, 1998, Smeal held a press conference with fellow feminists Betty Friedan and Patricia Ireland to announce that they would continue to enthusiastically support President Clinton, despite the sexual-misconduct allegations against him (including those involving Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky), “because he’s so good on all our issues.” When Juanita Broaddrick in 1999 claimed that Bill Clinton had raped her two decades earlier, Smeal dismissed the allegation and dispatched a spokeswoman to announce that she (Smeal) was “too busy” to comment on the matter.
In the aftermath of what she termed the “stolen presidential election” of 2000, where George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore had been marred by the infamous Florida recount controversy, Smeal charged that “the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to stop the recounting” violated “the 13th and 19th Amendments” and “disparately penalized women and people of color who voted disproportionately for Gore nationwide.”
In November 2001, it was reported that Smeal supported Penn State University’s decision to use $10,000 from its “student activities fee” coffers to fund an on-campus “C*ntfest” featuring graphic exhibitions of female sexuality.
In December 2001, Smeal struck a deal that made the Feminist Majority Foundation the sole publisher of Ms. magazine.
In 2004, Smeal supported Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry and was a signatory to a petition titled “Pledge of Action to Stop a Stolen Election.” “I remember the stolen presidential election of 2000,” said the pledge, “and I am willing to take action [by protesting] in 2004 if the election is stolen again.” Other signers included Medea Benjamin, Julian Bond, Leslie Cagan, John Cavanagh, Barbara Ehrenreich, Lisa Fithian, Jesse Jackson, Van Jones, James Lawson, Michael Lerner, Barbara Lubin, Robert McChesney, Michael Moore, Gloria Steinem, and Howard Zinn. This “Pledge” campaign was a joint project of Code Pink, Global Exchange, The Liberty Tree Foundation, and United for Peace & Justice for the Democratic Revolution
Smeal was on the steering committee of the April 25, 2004 “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, DC, an event that drew over a million people and advocated for taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand.
In an effort to derail legislative measures aimed at placing some restrictions on women’s access to abortion, Smeal in October 2006 helped put together a Ms. magazine cover story — titled “We Had Abortions” — which listed the names of thousands of women who had terminated a pregnancy at some point in their lives. “Women who have had abortions are standing up and taking the debate out of the hands of the politicians,” said Smeal and the editors of Ms. magazine. The petition, which included the signature of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, was forwarded to Congress, the White House, and state legislatures.
Smeal was featured in the “Pioneer Feminists Project” that the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) launched in 2006. Dedicated to documenting “the contributions of early Second Wave feminists active in 1975 or earlier,” this work, said VFA, featured those feminists’ “first-hand account[s] of what [they] did, where and when, for reference and research by historians, teachers, journalists, librarians, ourselves …” Some of the photos which were displayed in this project showed activists holding signs that read: (a) “Housewives Are Unpaid Slaves”; (b) “Oppressed Women: Don’t Cook a Dinner! Starve a Rat Today!”; and (c) “End Human Sacrifice! Don’t Get Married! Washing Diapers Is Not Fulfilling.”
A fierce critic of George W. Bush for his opposition to unrestricted abortion-on-demand—as evidenced by his objection to “partial-birth abortion” and his support for the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act—Smeal said in 2007: “This current president is in the pocket of the Roman Catholic bishops and right-wing ministers who should clean their own houses and stop interfering with a woman’s right to family planning and abortion.”
Smeal cheered the Obama administration’s January 2012 announcement that religious hospitals, schools, charities, and other health- and social-service providers would eventually be forced, regardless of their religious or moral objections, to provide their employees with health-insurance plans covering the costs of abortifacient pills, sterilizations, and contraception. She rejoiced that “at last,” the goal of “coverage for birth control without co-pays or deductibles” would be available to all women.
Smeal has likened American conservatives—particularly those who oppose abortion—to Islamic terrorists. “The extremist groups in the United States frighteningly resemble the al Qaeda and the Taliban,” she once told an interviewer. “They have similar identities…. Both want to use capital punishment for adultery, homosexuality, abortion, apostasy, etc. Both are using violence and terror as a strategy to achieve their ends. Both are targeting Jews, religious minorities, homosexuals, feminists and Americans…. I could go on and on about the similarities.”
Over the years, Smeal has given money to the campaigns of a number of political candidates, all Democrats. Among the noteworthy donees are Tammy Baldwin, Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Clinton, Donna Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Carolyn Maloney, and Barack Obama. She has also contributed to the Committee for a Democratic Future, the DNC Services Corporation, EMILY’s List, and Voters for Choice/Friends of Family Planning.