NOW Election Means New Activist Course : ERA, Abortion Will Be at Center of Fresh Approach

Times Staff Writer

Eleanor Smeal, who led the National Organization for Women during the long, losing campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment, unseated incumbent Judy Goldsmith Sunday to regain the presidency of NOW. Her election was a clear message that the membership wants more militancy.

"My job now is to unify," Smeal told supporters who had gathered in her suite right after the announcement.

As she spoke, her words were drowned out by chants of "Ellie's back! Ellie's back!" from campaign workers.

Smeal immediately called a press conference where she introduced her family--husband Charles, son Todd, 20, and daughter, Lori, 17, all of whom have been working on her campaign. As they wrapped their arms around one another, Smeal said, "You know, feminists aren't supposed to do this kind of thing, but why not?"

Responding to a question, Smeal said Ronald Reagan's victory last year and the current climate of political conservatism affected her election by making members "determined to not only grow more but, in fact, to be ever more confrontive. . . . The need for our movement is greater because the threats are greater.

"You can't, in my opinion, just go on in a position of low-key lobbying."

She grinned and said the organization has "been good pretty long. We tried that last year . . . . It's time to go out in the streets . . . to show we're a majority. It's time to put a lot more heat on the right wing and on the reactionary policies of this administration. That's what I intend to do."

Expected a Victory

Smeal, who will take office Sept. 1, said she had expected a significant victory on the basis of her polls, but "you never know if they're going to show up or who they're going to bring" to the conference.

Shelley Mandell, treasurer of Los Angeles NOW, said Smeal's victory means "a lot of new action, a lot of new money." Under Goldsmith, she said, "we weren't getting the sense of being a national organization of action. We're going back and really prepare to gear up."

Earlier, Smeal told wildly cheering partisans among the 2,000 delegates to NOW's national conference that it is time to take to the streets in "major actions" to put the New Right on the defensive.

She accused Goldsmith, a one-time college English professor who has led NOW on a course of lobbying and litigation during her two-year term, of letting NOW lose its visibility, its direction, its income and some of its membership.

The tension and suspense of the election were drawn out when a sample ballot irregularity discovered Saturday night led election officials to invalidate the first 505 votes cast and to extend polling hours until 6 a.m. Sunday.

Meanwhile, NOW members took to the streets of New Orleans in search of those early voters, locating 475 of them. Smeal took responsibility for the error that could have benefited former Mormon Sonia Johnson, a floor-nominated candidate who was not at this conference but at the International Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

But Smeal and Goldsmith agreed they would not contest election results unless there was a difference of fewer than 30 votes.

It was 1 p.m. local time when screams of "Ellie won!" echoed through the halls of the Fairmont Hotel. The vote was 839 for Smeal, 703 for Goldsmith and 11 for Johnson.

A Difference in Style

The differences between the two are largely style rather than substance--Smeal, the militant, vs. Goldsmith, the negotiator. Both campaigned on priorities that included reproductive rights, economic justice for women and passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

"We can't make more people understand just by chanting our slogans through a bigger bullhorn," Goldsmith said, and progress is not measured by "the miles we march."

Smeal, 45, a one-time homemaker from Pittsburgh, Pa. whose first paid job was as NOW president, is a political consultant in Washington. She said her candidacy was in response to a draft by disgruntled members. (She visited California twice recently and had strong support within the Los Angeles NOW chapter.)

The major point of disagreement between the candidates was on the ERA, which Smeal said had been made a "back burner" issue under Goldsmith's leadership. She called for a new ERA campaign, to begin in Vermont, where there is a woman governor, Madeleine Kunin. Smeal pledged that NOW will "bring it up and bring it up and bring it up" until the ERA is ratified.

It is time, she told cheering supporters, to "activate the soul, activate the energy of this (feminist) movement," to "put more oomph into everything we're doing."

Goldsmith, 46, who had served as vice president during Smeal's two terms in office, from 1977-1982, and had Smeal's backing when she ran for president 2 1/2 years ago, had earned a reputation as an effective lobbyist who believed that it was steady work through state legislatures and the courts, not flashy marches and demonstrations, that gained lasting benefits for women.

She had been given much of the credit for helping to persuade Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale to put Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket in 1984. Ferraro had been NOW's choice.

Nevertheless, Smeal was able to convey to members her perception of the Goldsmith-led NOW as a stagnant, no-growth organization.

The presidency is a two-year term that pays an annual salary of $55,000 a year.

There was some sentiment within the membership that Smeal's candidacy was a power grab by someone who considers this a one-woman organization and who was simply reluctant to give up the prestige and not inclined to develop new, young leaders within NOW.

Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant secretary of agriculture, said, "It's tough to have been head of a big national organization and suddenly have no attention, no press following you around. But that doesn't give you the right to come back and want to be president for life."

Goldsmith said she was not bitter that Smeal had chosen to challenge her but, when asked if this campaign would create divisiveness within NOW, she replied, "I don't think it helps."

Throughout, she maintained her position that NOW has remained an aggressive organization, pointing out, for example, that it staged 30 vigils in January at abortion clinics in the face of bombings and burnings of clinics nationwide.

And, Goldsmith said, she had "rebuilt" NOW as a "multi-issue organization" after the defeat of the ERA in 1982, a defeat she said was "devastating" to both NOW's morale and its bank account. "A lot of people thought when the ERA campaign ended, so did we," she said. The membership, which rose to 220,000 during the ERA campaign period, is now about 250,000, far beneath the stated goal in 1984 of 1 million.

One of NOW's first visible activities, Smeal said, would be "a major march on abortion" in March of 1986. She vowed that NOW would protest any Supreme Court reversal of Roe vs. Wade in a voice so loud it "would make the prohibition of liquor seem like just a small accident in history."

An indicator of Smeal's style was her promise to lead NOW protesters into Vermont and "wrap those anti-abortion ads right around their necks and paint them for the bigots they are."

Around the issue of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which was defeated in 1984, Smeal said NOW would build a campaign tied to the 1986 congressional elections that "will make the extension campaign for the ERA look small."

Goldsmith had argued that, while street actions are sometimes appropriate, NOW "can't get trapped in the romance of the struggle" and ignore the nitty gritty, unglamorous work that changes laws.

Sheri O'Dell of West Virginia, the Smeal-backed candidate for vice president-action, fired up Smeal supporters with this rhetoric: "If Martin Luther King hadn't taken us into the streets in the 1960s there wouldn't be a Civil Rights Act to restore, (and) if Eleanor Smeal hadn't taken us into the streets in the 1970s the ERA wouldn't be the feminist rallying call. We can spend the next two years fighting right-wing brush fires or we can start setting brush fires of our own."

Lois D'Berry, the first black woman in the Tennessee House of Representatives and president of the National Caucus of Black Women, put it this way in outlining the choices before NOW:

"The chicken and the pig have a different relationship to a breakfast of ham and eggs. For the chicken it is a contribution. For the pig it means total commitment. Let us not lay an egg and feel we have made a great contribution."

Above all, D'Berry said, "let us not divide."

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