Mary Louise Smith
Mary Louise Smith was a REPUBLICAN PARTY activist who became the first woman to serve as head of the party's national committee. Though she was a political moderate, Smith's advocacy of ABORTION rights and the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT (ERA) during the 1970s ran counter to the ideology of the party's conservative majority. Her outspoken manner disturbed the Republican Party leadership, which sought to bar her from the 1996 Republican National Convention.
Smith was born on October 16, 1914, in Eddyville, Iowa. She attended Iowa State University, graduating with a degree in social work in 1935. She married Elmer M. Smith, a physician, and moved with him to Eagle Grove, Iowa. Smith raised three children and soon became active in local politics, winning a seat on the Eagle Grove school board.
Smith's life changed when she began to work in the local Republican Party organization. Soon she was working at the county and state levels, becoming the leader of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women. In 1964 Smith became the alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention and vice-chair of the Iowa presidential campaign of the party's nominee, Senator BARRY M. GOLDWATER of Arizona. In that same year, Smith was elected to the Republican National Committee, the party's most powerful leadership organization.
Smith remained a member of the Republican National Committee during the 1960s and early 1970s. After President RICHARD M. NIXON resigned from the presidency in 1974 because of his involvement in the WATERGATE scandals, President GERALD R. FORD sought to restore the credibility of the Republican Party and separate it from the scandals of the Nixon administration. One step he took to accomplish these objectives was to appoint Smith as chair of the Republican National Committee in 1974. As the first woman to head a major U.S. political party, Smith drew national attention for her commitment to abortion rights and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1976 Smith was the first woman to organize and call to order a national presidential nominating convention of a major political party. President Ford won the Republican nomination, turning back an attempt by conservatives to nominate RONALD REAGAN, then governor of California. JIMMY CARTER defeated Ford in the November election, though, and in 1977 Smith resigned as chair of the party. She remained on the national committee until 1984.
President Reagan appointed Smith to the U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION in 1980 but soon regretted his action. Smith publicly criticized Reagan for his policies on CIVIL RIGHTS and the lack of women in his administration. Because of her criticisms, Smith was not reappointed to the commission in 1983.
Smith returned to Iowa and continued to seek a more moderate course for Republican politics, which was dominated by political and social conservatives. Though the ERA failed to be ratified by its 1982 deadline, Smith continued to advocate equal rights for women. She also became an outspoken proponent for GAY AND LESBIAN RIGHTS.
By 1996 Smith had been pushed to the margins of the Republican Party. Party leaders sought to exclude her from the 1996 Republican
National Convention because delegates feared she might make public statements that were out of step with party ideology. At the last minute, a party leader secured her entrance to the convention floor by giving her a ticket as a member of the convention's security personnel.
Though outspoken, Smith was an admired figure in Iowa politics. As founder of the Iowa Women's Political Caucus, she was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1991 Smith created the Women's Archives project at Iowa State University, and in 1995 the university honored her by creating the Mary Louise Smith endowed chair in women and politics.
Smith died on August 22, 1997, in Des Moines, Iowa.