Eleanor Smeal recaptured the presidency of the National Organization for Women by promising to return to the militancy of the past, but she faces the difficult task of doing so during what she acknowledges are "conservative times."

NOW, the nation's largest feminist group, is internally divided and deeply in debt after its annual convention in New Orleans. Some think that Smeal's pledge to take feminists "back into the streets" will fall on deaf ears, leaving the organization isolated and ineffectual.

But Smeal, who was president of the organization from 1977 to 1982, is determined to buck conventional wisdom.

"People are tired of being told the country has become right-wing. They want to fight back," she said in an interview. "The reason things have been so quiet is too many progressives have accepted conventional wisdom. They've bought the idea that they should try to ride out the tide, lay low and keep quiet."

"My sense of timing is people are tired of not seeing our people out there," Smeal added. "I want to change the direction of the whole progressive movement."

In ousting incumbent president Judy Goldsmith, delegates to the NOW convention bought Smeal's approach. It was a victory of militancy over moderation, of confrontation over compromise and coalition building.

"Ellie offered a politics of passion and personal participation that appealed to NOW members," said Ann Lewis, a longtime NOW member and national director of Americans for Democratic Action.

The media underestimated the appeal of Smeal's approach over Goldsmith's emphasis on lobbying and coalition building, reflected in Smeal's surprisingly wide 839-to-703 victory -- although reporters arriving for Smeal's news conference last Friday might have been tipped off by her supporters, who stood in the hall outside chanting: "Give 'em hell. Give 'em hell."

"I intend to raise a little hell with you all," Smeal told the convention at its final session Sunday after her election.

The crowd cheered. How the rest of the country will respond to Smeal's "hell-raising" is another question.

During her long and bitter campaign, Smeal pledged to work for child care, pay equity for women and ordinances prohibiting sexual discrimination, a popular issue among lesbians, who made up about a quarter of the delegates.

She has said she intends to launch major campaigns on three issues: legalized abortion, passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Smeal wants to take women "back into the streets" chiefly over the abortion issue when she assumes her $55,000-a-year job Sept. 1. She proposes a march of 200,000 people on Washington next March and a major organizing campaign on campuses this fall.

"I think the conservative tide is running on economic, not social, issues," Smeal said yesterday. "Polls show the public supports us on abortion. Just because young people voted for Ronald Reagan doesn't mean they believe everything he and Jerry Falwell says is true. Kids think Falwell is a joke."

Smeal was a Pittsburgh homemaker when she and her husband, Charles, joined NOW in 1970. They have two children, Tod, 20, and Lori, 17, and the family campaigned together in New Orleans.

The ERA became one of the most heated issues of the Smeal-Goldsmith race and provided a glimpse at the organization's internal financing.

The focus of Smeal's previous presidency was a national campaign for passage of the ERA. The highly publicized but unsuccessful effort helped NOW grow from 60,000 members in 1977 to 220,000 in 1982, a year in which it had a $13 million budget.

But Goldsmith charged that the ERA campaign financially "devastated" NOW, which has a $5.5 million budget this year. She angered many convention delegates -- many of whom had given up jobs to work for passage of the ERA -- by calling further efforts for the amendment "exercises in futility" in an interview with The Washington Post.

Smeal, contending that direct-mail appeals on behalf of the ERA have long provided the financial base for NOW, said she wanted to "take the ERA out of the deep freeze" by spending $250,000 for a state ERA referendum on the Vermont ballot in 1986 before moving on to bigger states.

"ERA is a wonderful organizing tool and conscience-raiser, but it also spreads feminism and other legislation in its wake," she said in an interview. "You might not get it, but you get other things as you go along. It makes good dollars sense, too. The ERA has always been our biggest money raiser."

Such talk troubles some.

"There's no doubt that Ellie can increase NOW's membership with ERA marches," said one highly regarded feminist leader, who asked not to be identified. "Ellie has already demonstrated that. But she also demonstrated that doesn't pass legislation."