Author Suzanne O’Dea will discuss her latest book, Madam Chairman: Mary Louise Smith and the Republican Revival after Watergate, at noon to 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 12, in 2256 Multicultural Center in Iowa State University’s Memorial Union
The presentation – which is free and open to the public – is sponsored by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. It also highlights the center’s Mary Louise Smith lecture series, which brings CNN’s chief political correspondent Candy Crowley to the Iowa State campus on Nov. 13.
“We couldn’t have planned for a better two-day recognition of Mary Louise Smith and the women leaders who have visited Iowa State University through the lecture series created in her honor,” said Dianne Bystrom, Catt Center director. “We invite people to bring their lunch and hear Suzanne discuss the life of the Republican National Committee’s first and only woman chair.”
For much of her career, Smith stood alone as a woman in a world of politics run by men. After devoting more than two decades of her life to politics, she eventually became the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee (RNC). O’Dea examines Smith’s rise and fall within the party and analyzes her strategies for gaining the support of its leaders.
During her 28 months as RNC chair, Smith dealt with highs and lows as she blazed not only a trail of her own but also one for the Republican Party, including assembling the team that kept the party intact following the Watergate scandal. She was present during the party’s shift from moderate leadership, as exemplified by President Gerald Ford – who handpicked her for the RNC position – to an increasingly conservative leadership.
Smith – who was an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice and a proponent of gay rights – found herself struggling against the party and, at times, even against President Ford himself. At one point, Smith lost months of fundraising opportunities as a result of a disagreement with the president. She and her staff developed innovative strategies, still used by the party today, to attract money from major donors. Even so, people within the administration as well as unnamed party leaders regularly intimated that Smith’s days as chair were numbered. Even after leaving the RNC chair position, she remained loyal to the party from which she felt increasingly alienated.
O’Dea uses extensive personal interviews with Smith and her staff at the RNC to recount not only Smith’s and the GOP’s changing fortunes but also the challenges that Republican women faced as they worked to gain a larger party presence. These behind-the-scenes perspectives show the tactics and strategies of the Republican Party’s power struggles along with Smith’s own opinions about leadership style. With relevance to today’s political strategies and conservative shift, O’Dea highlights Smith’s mark on Republican Party history.
O’Dea is the author of three books, including Legislators and Politicians: Iowa’s Women Lawmakers and From Suffrage to the Senate: An Encyclopedia of American Women in Politics. She lives in McKinleyville, CA.