Lael Stegall helped found Emily’s List, the political action fund that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. She worked a lobster boat in the North Atlantic, off the coast of New England. She went to the war-torn Balkans in the 1990s to advise, support and comfort women who had been victims of rape and domestic violence.
She went dog-sledding in February in western Maine, where she spent two nights in a tent in the snow in 12-below-zero weather. She was one of the early volunteers in the Peace Corps, which sent her to Turkey, where she helped start the country’s first school of social work.
In addition to her more public pursuits, her friends insisted that she made “the world’s best blueberry pie.”
On Oct. 25, Mrs. Stegall died at her home in Deer Isle, Maine, where she had lived since 2000, after spending most of her earlier life in the Washington area. She died of pancreatic cancer at age 70, said her husband, Ron Stegall.
Mrs. Stegall had immersed herself in activism since the 1960s, just as the women’s rights movement began to assert itself and anti-war protests were robust and noisy.
“Passionate is the single word that describes Lael Stegall,” a friend, Barrie Pribyl, said in an e-mail. “There were few aspects of life that Lael wasn’t passionate about, with the possible exception of purchasing and, definitely, wrapping Christmas presents.”
Pribyl described Mrs. Stegall as a woman who “mostly did what she wanted.” When her death was imminent, “she told me there was nothing on her so-called bucket list.” She had already done it all.
Mary Lael Swinney was born in the District on Feb. 26, 1941. Her mother, Olive, worked for the District’s public housing authority and was committed to social justice and fair housing initiatives.
Conversations at the dinner table, Lael once told The Washington Post, involved her mother quizzing her and a younger brother about what they had done that day for truth and justice.
She graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County and from Colby College in Maine. At a midnight political rally at Colby in the fall of 1960, she heard then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) describe his plans for a Peace Corps should he be elected president, and she vowed then and there to become part of it.
After receiving a master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago in 1964, she joined the nascent Peace Corps and served for two years in Turkey. There, she met the man who would become her husband, Ron Stegall, who was running a training program for Peace Corps volunteers.
Back in Washington, they lived for years in a sprawling old house on East Capitol Street. It was one of a few houses on Capitol Hill with a side yard, and there was a statue of a deer in it. It was known in the neighborhood as “the deer house.”
During the period of Washington street protests against the war in Vietnam, the Stegall home became an unofficial hostel for peace demonstrators. It was common for a dozen or more out-of-town peace activists to be camped out for the night on every available chair, couch, bed or vacant space on the floor.
Mrs. Stegall became an acknowledged expert in the art of grantsmanship — specifically in obtaining funds to support what she told the New York Times were “important initiatives in building the profile of women as change makers and leaders.”
From 1973 to 1979, she was director of the National Women’s Political Caucus advocacy group. In 1980, she helped found the Windom Fund, which supported voting rights and women’s empowerment. Later, she served eight years as its executive director. That helped lead to the founding of Emily’s List — “Emily” stood for “early money is like yeast,” which makes “dough” rise.
In 1994, Mrs. Stegall co-founded the Strategies, Training, Advocacy and Resources (STAR) Network to help women in the Balkans recover from war traumas, establish credit and investment programs and reclaim damaged lives. She made several trips to the region.
For years, the Stegalls had vacationed in Deer Isle, and they decided to move there permanently in 2000. Survivors include her husband of 44 years, Ronald D. Stegall of Deer Isle; two children, Shana Cousins of Sedgwick, Maine, and Skyler Stegall of the District; a brother; and three grandchildren.
With a friend, Mrs. Stegall went into the lobster business part time. They had about 45 lobster traps, and in summer they went out three to four times a week. Her job was to re-bait the traps and band the lobster claws. It was hard work, but “she was never happier than when she was out on the water,” her husband said.
In the Maine Lobster Woman’s calendar of 2004, there was a prominently displayed photograph of Mrs. Stegall, in a lobsterman’s apron and boots, as “Ms. December.”
On Deer Isle, the Stegalls lived in a remodeled fisherman’s house with a view of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and, to the East, the Atlantic Ocean. That is where Mrs. Stegall died, having fulfilled her wish to “die in a pretty place.”