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Eleanor Smeal talks about women and politics

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 1984


THERE'S a kind of gentle joke that travels through the halls of the National Organization for Women (NOW). It's called a ''smealism,'' after the group's former president, Eleanor Smeal.

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As one admirer says, ''smealisms'' are what spatter from the soapbox when Ms. Smeal's ''mind works faster than her tongue.''

Ms. Smeal once declared, for instance, in her hometown Pennsylvania accent, ''I wasn't born yesterday for nothing!'' Another time she encouraged audience with, ''Let's roll up our arms and get to work!''

The soapbox feeling comes early and often in an knterview with Ms. Smeal, women's rights advocate, spokesperson for the homemaker, leader of the pro-Equal Rights Amendment faction.

''Ellie is a great motivator of people, largely through example,'' says a close associate at NOW, where the former president saw membership grow from 50, 000 to 250,000 under her leadership and take an increasingly political turn.

If women in the United States seem to be delving more into politics, with larger numbers votino and running for political office, much of the credit goes to NOW. Both admirers and detractors of the women's movement concur that the ongoing fight for the ERA, championed by NOW, has helped focus national attention on inequities in the ways women are treated under the law.

The fight has also, says a source at NOW, created the so-called gender gap - the difference in a politician's standing among male and female voters. ''Ellie was the catalyst for the gender gap,'' says an admirer. Ms. Smeal herself doesn't quite agree with that assessment. ''We felt like Christopher Columbus,'' she said in the interview. ''America was here; he discovered it. The gender gap was there; we discovered it.''

In her newly published book, ''Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President'' (New York: Harper & Row), she claims that the differences between men's and women's votes were never tracked before because, unlike many minority groups, women don't live in a particular voting district or area.

Ms. Smeal and others had suspected that women vote differently from men, and they felt a need to prove their hunch, she says, during the ERA fight. Armed with polls showing the voting populace favoring the ERA (''2 to 1,'''she says), she and others would visit members of the state houses to persuade them to vote in its favor. ''First they'd say, 'My district doesn't feel that way,' and we'd show them the polls. Then they'd say, 'My constituents don't feel that way,' and we'd show them the polls. Then they'd say, 'Maybe women are in favor of the ERA, but they just vote the way their husbands do.' Always the denial,'' she says.

NOW began tracking the votes of men and women separately, first by using exit polls after the 1980 election. These indicated an eight-point gender gap between men and women voting for Reagan. Then they followed Reagan's popularity polls, ''because he's anti-ERA, and because they're taken monthly.''

What they found, she claims, is a gender gap that has moved from general anti-Reagan feelings toward support for candidates who favor government spending on social issues, such as ''education and the environment, and decreasing military spending,'' she writes.

The women's vote will make all the difference in the presidential race, she insists - especially if one of the parties chooses a female vice-presidential candidate. A study she recently completed for the Democrats indicates that thd choice of a female running mate would give any candidate a 10-point boost in the polls. ''Can you imagine what would happen if a poll said that, say, a white male from Illinois would cause a 10-point boost? They'd be busting down the doors in Illinois, creating a candidate if they couldn't find one,'' she asserts.

Instead, the talk about a woman vice-president - including Eleanor Smeal as a possible choice - is still just talk, a fact that rankles some feminists. Ellen Goodman said in a recent column that women should be emulating the style of candidate Jesse Jackson, who isn't waiting for the Democratic Party to nominate a black man, but is actively seeking the nomination himself.