She's come a long way, but not far enough for Eleanor Smeal.
Time is running out for the former Pittsburgh housewife, who four years ago was elected president of NOW and in her first salaried job declared passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as her mandate.
The "bottom line," she said in 1977.
"Our birthright," she says in 1981.
A housewife? asked those accustomed to more flamboyant feminists in 1977. A savior, said some, or the one at the helm, predicted others, when the movement would die.
The movement hasn't died. "We aren't a fad," declares Smeal. "We aren't going away."
But Smeal is acutely aware of the passing of time. Sixty-one years ago today women won the vote and now there's another constitutional countdown: 10 months remain before the June 30, 1982 deadline for ERA ratification. "We'll wear a different pin every month marking the months left before the deadline.
"And if July 1 comes, and we haven't made it, we won't turn into a pumpkin. And if we have to start all over again and it's another 20 years, we'll do it. We're not summer soldiers."
Meanwhile, Smeal the "housewife" has become a household word, a recognizable face on millions of TV screens: short brown hair bobbing in hundreds of marches, brown eyes giving fire to statistics on the economics of women, the woman with a next-door demeanor sparring with the country-club charisma of opposition leader Phyllis Schlafly. Smeal has made the ritual rounds of the news and talk shows, on "Donahue," the "Tom Snyder Show," "Good Morning America," "Today."
Ellie Smeal, 42, doesn't see herself in terms of savior or secular saint, but she admits feeling "guilty for sleeping, there's so much to do." And she'll give you statistics; she has them for everything. Such as, comparing when she took over, and now:
Then: 65,000 National Organization for Women members. Now: 140,000.
Then: $1 1/2 million budget. Now: almost $5 million.
Then: paid staff of 13. Now: 40.
"And we can hardly believe it, but we got 14,000 new members in July, compared with about 3,000 in July a year ago. Something's going on."
That something she doesn't mind pointing at just could be the election of Ronald Reagan as president, who has said he's for the "E" and the "R," but not the "A."
"There was a definite surge after the election," says Smeal. "The polls show a noticeable split for the first time between the women's and the men's vote. There's a feeling that things are going backwards. People are saying, 'My God, I never thought this could happen.' "
The costs of commitment have not been small. Soon after Ellie Smeal, a Phi Beta Kappa political science graduate of Duke University, was elected to a second, two-year term of office, the family called a conference in their suburban Pittsburgh ranch-style house. "It was getting impossible; I was on the road so much it was hard to see my family." (The Smeals have two children, Lori, 13, and Tod, 17.)
The family decided to pull up stakes after 12 years in Pennsylvania -- where the Smeals attended their first "consciousness-raising" session together in 1970 -- and moved to the Washington area. The children now often join their mother for lunch.
Ellie Smeal's marriage to Charlie, 48, has been described by more than one friend as the best evidence of her capability in making long-range decisions. A metalurgist, he not only gave up his job, but switched professions in the move here.
"I took a job as a ceramist, or glass scientist," he says offhandedly, "and my contract just ended. Where I go from here I haven't the least idea. Sure, it's disturbing to be out of a job, but we'll work something out."
His wife's job with NOW has been extended through December 1982, to provide, she says, a "transition period." Her starting salary was $17,500; she now earns $41,000, which one of her aides calls "low, considering she works 20 hours a day, seven days a week."
"We didn't delude ourselves in any way about how difficult this would be," says Charlie Smeal. "And it has been, in many ways. But we made a commitment together, and no one's going to welsh on it."
And there's no sense of welshing at NOW headquarters in the Pennsylvania Building, 13th and Pennsylvania. The organization occupies four floors, its atmosphere not unlike that of a presidential campaign, with less commotion but a sense of determination. The street entrance is swathed in green -- "for go and money" -- and people wander in, sign their names and go out with an ERA pin, T-shirt or other campaign paraphernalia.
Surrounded by picture after picture of women marching, some 150 volunteers daily log, mail, chart and tabulate memberships and money. "Save the terrific contributions for Ellie," says one. "She likes to write a little personal note."
Smeal's office, accessible only through a labyrinth of cubicles, typewriters and computers, is windowless. There have been threats. Walls are covered with gold and white grass cloth and the place is meticulously neat. Its occupant is eating a McDonald's hamburger at 10 a.m.
Ellie Smeal has both an air of calm and urgency about her. She's wearing a red blazer, red, white and blue print blouse and navy blue skirt. Her only jewelry is a simple gold ERA pin. When the photographer arrives, she asks, "Should I put on lipstick?" An aide says yes.
This week, Smeal is riding high on preliminary results of Saturday's ERA Walkathon. "Somebody called from L.A. (where Betty Ford and Mayor Tom Bradley led the march) and was shouting that they'd made $30,000 in selling trinkets alone. We're euphoric."
But Smeal is pensive about NOW strategy for seven targeted states -- Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia -- out of which they must get three more state legislatures to approve the amendment for a total of 38 needed for ratification.
"I spent seven hours traveling around Oklahoma just to get a feeling of the place. We went into the unpopulated areas -- a tactic we're going to emphasize -- to figure out how we're going to organize people controlled by a legislature miles away." (She's frequently in touch with 200 representatives "out in the field who are really in touch with the country . . . talk about grass-roots campaigning.")
She's more relaxed than she was four years ago -- although there were no gray hairs then, and there are today.
"We don't have to prove anymore that what we're saying is right. The polls agree with us. Did you see the latest showing that 61 percent of the American public favors ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment?
"But we know that political power has no relation to popularity. All it takes is a handful of people to hold things back."
Four years ago, Ellie Smeal almost whispered her predictions about what she saw as an emerging national right-wing, fundamentalist force. "I didn't want to sound paranoid."
Now she has sent out volunteers to enemy territory like Utah, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose opposition to the ERA is so strident that church member Sonia Johnson was excommunicated for ERA activities.
Smeal admits that she finds herself often inspired -- "and maybe that's a corny word, but I think we need idealism and knowledge" -- by those first suffragists in whose memory President Reagan has declared today Women's Equality Day.
"Most of the leaders didn't live to see the results of their work," says Smeal. "It took them three generations to get there . . . but Charlie her husband says I shouldn't compare."
She does anyway.
"The parallels between that drive and ours are almost shocking. There's the length of our campaign and theirs. (ERA was first introduced in 1923, three years after women got the vote.) They were told that if they got the vote, they'd break up the family. They found out later that a quiet lobby of liquor interests was their strongest opposition. I believe that there's a 'silent lobby' of people who are worried that the amendment will cost them something in payroll and benefits and they'll lose an eager, underpaid labor pool."
Why else, she asks, can "any fair-minded person be against an amendment that says 'equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex?'
"There are some people," she says with an almost tender chuckle about constituents out there, "who think the amendment is some ponderous tome. They write us, asking for a copy of 'that thing.' "
But there are others, like the waitress Ellie Smeal recalls in Chicago, who see the amendment simply. "I asked her something like 'Are you with us?' She came right back and said, 'I'm a woman, ain't I?' "