The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Smith, Mary Louise
(October 6, 1914–August 22, 1997)

–Republican Party official and women's rights activist—was born in Eddyville, Iowa, the second of two daughters of Frank Epperson, a bank president, and Louise (Jager) Epperson, a homemaker. In 1929 the bank failed and the Eppersons moved to Iowa City. Mary Louise graduated from Iowa City High School in 1931 and from the State University of Iowa in 1935. She married medical student Elmer Smith on October 7, 1934, and subsequently had three children: Robert (b. 1937), Margaret (b. 1939), and James (b. 1942).

    From 1937 to 1940 Elmer practiced medicine before entering military service. At the end of the war, the Smiths took up residence in Eagle Grove. There Mary Louise Smith befriended Cathlene Blue, wife of former Governor Robert Blue. Although Smith had been a longtime Republican, it was the Blues' encouragement that propelled Smith into a career as a Republican Party official. She became precinct committeewoman and county vice-chairman. By the 1960s she had developed statewide contacts through the networks of the Iowa Council of Republican Women. From 1961 to 1963, during Governor Norman Erbe 's tenure, she served on the Iowa Commission of the Blind. Meanwhile, an Eagle Grove librarian gave Smith a copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963). As did millions of other women, Smith credited Friedan's book with inspiring her to pursue accomplishments beyond her role as a wife and mother. For Smith, that meant taking on more prominent roles in the Republican Party.

    Their children grown and Elmer recently retired, the Smiths moved to Des Moines in 1963. In 1964 Mary Louise was elected Republican National Committeewoman, a seat recently vacated by Anna Lomas's retirement. Smith rose quickly to a position of state and national prominence in Republican circles, becoming an ally of Iowa Governor Robert Ray and of George H. W. Bush. In an effort to rebuild the state party after losses suffered during Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential bid, Smith helped develop a system of precinct organization that became a model for later national efforts. In 1969 she was named to the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee (RNC), where Bush became her mentor.

    By then a well-known party official, Smith would soon come to identify with the feminist movement. Although inspired by Friedan 10 years earlier, Smith initially doubted that the new feminist movement could speak to her. But younger Republican women persuaded Smith that her rights were tied to those of all women. She became an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and reproductive freedom. In 1973 she was among the Iowa feminists who founded the Iowa Women's Political Caucus, an affiliate of the recently formed National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). Although the NWPC was intended to be a bipartisan organization, the Iowa chapter proved to be one of the few state organizations where Republican women were truly active. Smith's leadership undoubtedly played a significant role.

    Arguing that equal rights and reproductive freedom were consistent with the party's tradition of individualism, Smith advocated for these issues from a position of increasing influence within the GOP. In 1974 she became the first woman to chair the RNC, when President Gerald Ford named her to succeed George H. W. Bush. Although some complained of her lack of leadership experience (in Washington, she was often referred to as the "little old lady from Iowa"), Smith was admired as a trusted party loyalist and an experienced grassroots organizer. She chaired the RNC until she resigned in January 1977 following Ford's loss in the 1976 presidential election. Despite Ford's defeat, Smith was widely credited with having helped to revitalize the party in the critical post-Watergate years.

    Yet Smith, a feminist and a political moderate, was becoming uneasy about the growing influence of Ronald Reagan and his supporters in the party. In 1980 Republican delegates nominated Reagan for president and passed a platform that eliminated the GOP's 40-year endorsement of the ERA and called for a constitutional ban on abortion. Believing that she could best work for reforms from within, Smith campaigned for Reagan's election. Although criticized, that decision was in keeping with Smith's strong Republican identity and her faith in the two-party system. Her loyalty was rewarded by an appointment to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where she served from 1982 to 1983. Her support for affirmative action and school busing were inconsistent with the positions of the Reagan administration, however, thus shortening her tenure on the commission.

    In 1984 Smith ended her 20-year career as Iowa's Republican National Committeewoman. By that time she was a widow, Elmer having died in 1980. Although she had become a national political figure, Smith continued to reside in Iowa and to work extensively on state issues. A champion of higher education, Smith left her mark on several of Iowa's universities. She served as a member of Drake University's board of trustees throughout the 1980s. At the University of Iowa, Smith founded, together with Louise Noun, the Iowa Women's Archives, a repository for the papers of Iowa women and women's organizations, which opened in 1992. At Iowa State University in 1995, she lent her name to a Chair in Women and Politics.

    Inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1977, Smith continued to work on women's issues in Iowa throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She was an energetic board member of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, and was occasionally picketed for her activism. In 1992 she campaigned for the passage of the Iowa Equal Rights Amendment in a failed voter referendum.

    A member of the United Church of Christ, Smith served on the board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Iowa Region. She was also a member of the board of directors of the Iowa Peace Institute in the late 1980s before leaving to become a member of the national board.

    Despite her heavy slate of state activities, Smith did not remove herself from national party work. From 1988 to 1994 she served as National Co-Chair of the Republican Mainstream Committee (an organization of moderate Republicans), was active in Republicans for Choice, and campaigned for her old friend and mentor George H. W. Bush in 1988 and 1992. As the state Republican Party moved farther to the right in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Smith found herself increasingly shunted aside, as she continued to speak against her party's positions on women's issues and civil rights, its general drift away from its moderate wing, and its embrace of the Christian Right. Smith died in Des Moines at age 82 of lung cancer.
Sources Smith's extensive collection of papers, held by the Iowa Women's Archives in the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, relates primarily to her public career. The files on her term as RNC chair are supplemented by materials located in the White House Central Files held by the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of the material in this essay is found in a different form in Catherine E. Rymph, "Mary Louise Smith," in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, ed. Susan Ware (2004). An interview with Smith concerning her feminism is in Louise Noun, More Strong-Minded Women: Iowa Women Tell Their Stories (1992). For published works that discuss Smith, see Tanya Melich, The Republican War against Women: An Insider's Report from behind the Lines (1996); and Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (2006).
Contributor: Catherine E. Rymph

Cite as: Rymph, Catherine E. "Smith, Mary Louise" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 16 August 2018