Eleanor Cutri Smeal is the first housewife elected president of NOW (the National Organization for Women), but she's hardly the cookie-baking, ruffled-curtain stereotype - if there is such a thing anymore.

The words intense, driven, brilliant, committed are used over and over again to describe the Phi Beta Kappa graduate and head of the largest organization (65,000 members) devoted to feminism in America.

"Somewhere deep inside of her there's something burning, something that emanates from her gut," says one NOW member. "She works seven days a week; it's really incredible," says another.

"She's always been an enigma to me," says a friend who has known her for most of her life. "I don't know what drives her, but she's always been a deep thinker. I've been with her when she's driving a car and sat through two red lights; she's so preoccupied."

There are those in the feminist movement who have watched Smeals drive to the top and can't imagine her ever taking time to stand behind a kitchen stove. Others have traded recipes with her. Some say she has no sense of humor. Others say it's just too subtle for most people to understand. Some look to her as a kind of savier, a quiet mending force in the increasingly [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and divisive women's movement. Others say she uses people for the cause and casts them aside.

Whoever Ellie Smeal is after five minutes with her - brown velvet eyes, rapid- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] facts, opinions are whipping karate-like [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and all - you know you are in the presence of a powerful an complex personally, driven almost singularly by the cause of women's rights. She gives off simultaneously an aura of kinship and a vague isolation and loneliness - the lot perhaps, of the deeply committed.

"When she says she has "eaten, slept, lived and breathed feminism for seven years, you believe her.

Ellie Smeal, 38, as head of NOW - the 11-year-old organization that most embodies the growth and the dissension in the feminist movement - will lead the largest voting delegation (1.442) at the historic National Women's Conference opening Friday in Houston.

The pivotal issue will be the Equal Rights Amendment, and there are those who are predicting not only its death but the demise, generally, of the women's movement.

Smeal admists she expects "disruption" and is concerned that the conference will turn into "a media event, with a barage of hysteria an anxiety eclipsing the real issues. It may slow things down, but we've survived that before and we can again. Women's lives, and we can again. Women's lives,

She avoids talk of any uneasiness though, are not going to go away." about the conference, except for saying, "have asked for protection."

It is a Sunday afternoon in the suburban Pittsburgh rambler Ellie Smeal shares (on sporadic weekends these days) with her husband, Charles, 45, and two children, Lori, 10, and Tod, 13.

She has taken a late plane Friday night in the Smeal home. ("I like to headquarters with a staff of 13 in spartan offices in the Pennsylvania Building. Her husband, who with his wife joined NOW in 1970, has scheduled a chapter meeting Saturday night in the Smeal home. ["I like to keep in touch with the grass roots."]

Ellie Smeal tries to get home at least once a week; but on any given day she could be almost anywhere, from a walkathon in Los Angeles to a United Auto Workers' meeting in Detroit. She holds NOW meetings almost nightly in her Southwest Washington apartment, shared with another NOW officer.

Rest? "Never."

"Charlie and I talked for hours about whether or not I should take this job," says Smeal. "We knew it was going to be a difficult two years, but that it was a unique opportunity to do something for women of this country."

In Pittsburgh, the Smeals' street, Sunset Ridge, is a wide and rolling avenue of carefully tended middle-income homes - a leisurely and comfortable place with dogs and children and people puttering in their yards.

When Ellie Smeal comes to te door, rather marching down the hall, there is a feeling for a minute of entering a professional office more than a home. And in a way, that's no so far off. The Smeals' "home" office of NOW is the most lived-in looking room in the house. It is so loaded with filing cabinets, all carefully categorized - "domestic workers," "wife beatings," "abortion," "salaries" - that it makes an insurance office look sparse.

Wearing a checked overblouse, brown pants and gold-chained medium-high tan shoes, Smeal looks as basic, no-nonsense as her house. Wash-and-wear brown hair, no jewelry, no lipstick. Cosmetics, literally and figuratively, seem to be no part of her.

She is not the type to smile gratuitously or to chat about the weather. She doesn't sink into the chair; she perches on its edges, as if she's stopped by on her way somewhere.

"I like to say that the women's movement is now coming of age," she says. "We've gone through the stage of being ridiculed."

Now a "major priority" is passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. "It is a bottom-line issue, but it cannot be a panacea."

When she talks about "playing a hard political game now" and "getting at the key bosses who control the state legislatures," you can imagine her stalking capitols all over the country. Which she and other NOW members are in fact doing. She rattles off by first and last name ERA allies and enemies in a mind-boggling number of states.

Politics, obviously a first love, is a subject Ellie Smeal has been arguing since about age 8, particularly with her Italian-born father. Every night he led a lively dinner-table debate on current issues with his wife, daughter and her three older brothers.

"I grew up (in Erie, Pa.) thinking that was what everyone did," he says.

Charlie Smeal, a Ph. D. metallurgist with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, sits in on most of the conversation, nodding his head often. At one point, he gets up and without a word slips into the kitchen and slides a Sunday roast into the oven.

Charlie Smeal (once you've met him, calling him anything else sounds stuffy) is a '70s-style man behind the woman, a modest and secure turn about of those old stories about the woman behind the man. Other NOW members refer to him affectionately as "dear" and "sweet" and "understanding," You get the feeling that NOW, and his wife, are the most stimulating parts of his life. More than one friend points to their marriage of 14 years as the best evidence of Ellie Smeal's capability to make long-range decisions.

There was a time. Ellie Smeal admits, early in the marriage, when she was depressed at being at home all of the time. "No question about it. It's the whole thing of sudden isolation when you're used to being out with people. I think it's a shock to your system and is the reason so many housewives sleep a great deal. We talked about it for hours and hours. We're very good friends."

When their daughters was 10 months old and their son was age 4, Ellie Smeal was bedridden for a year with a slipped disc.

"Charlie would go out and get met books," she says. "One day he started bringing home feminist literature."

It was during that period that "I got a sense of urgency, that I knew, I was mortal and that it was time I started trying to accomplish something."

A political-science graduate from Duke University, Ellie Smeal has a master's degree in political science and public administration from the University of Florida. She has completed her dissertation on "Attitudes of Women Toward Women Candidates" except for its formal presentation and such things as footnoting.

"I just decided I could do something more important for NOW with those three months of my life," she says.

"Mickey-Mouse stuff," adds Charlie.

An image Smeal carries with her from those 1971 doctorate-interviewing days is of one woman "who kept working all the time I was talking to her, ironing, dusting, cooking. She just assumed that women were responsible for everything, all the meals, the house, the underwear in every drawer. 'Women just can't be political.' she said, 'because they don't have enough time.' And then I looked past her ironing board and could see into another room. There was the man of the house and the kids with their feet up watching TV."

"I don't understand that," says Charlie Smeal. "We've always both done the housework. Another thing that really bothers me is a social situation where the men go off somewhere to talk about interesting things and the women, food and houses. I always know that Ellie wants to be talking about politics.

Asked if he ever, in a secret corner of his heart, longs for an "ordinary," at-home wife (after all, he's carrying the major load of the housework and child care, with no outside help), Smeal comes as close to shouting as he ever does. "Are you kidding? I couldn't understand it. I'd run miles."

Does Ellie Smeal ever think that she's paying too high a price in her drive to eliminate injustices for women? ("Every detail, every problem she accepts as hers," says one NOW member.) Might not her own children suffer, and isn't her absent-from-home lifestyle the very male role that housewives deplore?

"If I left quilty about it, I obviously wouldn't have taken the job," she says.

The same seems to go for the housework. When the photographer suggests a picture on the patio - a barren place without a stick of furniture - it is Smeal who apologizes for the weeds and his wife who says, "Oh Charlie, it's all right."

But it seems out of character and somehow touching when Ellie Smeal notices a lack of towels in the bathroom and then murmurs, like women everywhere, an apology for not finishing "my cleaning job."

Before taking office, Ellie Smeal insisted that the position of the NOW president, along with four other executive positions, be salaried jobs (for the first time). She earns $17,500 and it's her firt paying job.

She works 10- and 12-hour days, on the phone and in meetings, with a staff that one former NOW member describes as "so loyal, they're like groupies. When she goes out to meetings, she always has her entourage, like a senator. Her only problem is that she is involved in everything, every detail, and doesn't delegate authority."

She says she thinks often of her father Peter Cutri (now dead) who came to this country at age 10. He went to work as a laborer at 12, finally built his own insurance company and "taught himself everything. He would stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning reading my college books.

"He and my mother (Josephine Cutri, 76, who still lives in Erie said, over and over again, 'Don't ever take a back seat to anyone."