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Madam Chairman

Mary Louise Smith and the Republican Revival after Watergate

Suzanne O'Dea

Publication Year: 2012


“This biography of a very important Republican woman is a vital contribution to the historical scholarship on women’s partisan activism in the late twentieth century. O’Dea is clearly an expert on her subject.”—Melanie Gustafson, author of Women and the Republican Party: 1854–1924
For much of her career Mary Louise Smith stood alone as a woman in a world of politics run by men. After devoting over two decades of her life to politics, she eventually became the first, and only, woman chairman of the Republican National Committee. Suzanne O’Dea examines Smith’s rise and fall within the party and analyzes her strategies for gaining the support of Republican Party leaders.
Smith’s leadership skills grew from the time she worked in rural precincts. During her twenty-eight months as chairman, 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 devastation of Watergate. She was present during the party’s shift from moderate leadership, as exemplified by Ford, to the increasingly conservative leadership still seen today. Smith was an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, a supporter of the pro-choice movement, and a proponent of gay rights.
Though handpicked by President Ford, Smith still found herself struggling against the party and at times even against the president 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 in the party today, to attract desperately needed dollars from major donors. Even so, people within the administration as well as unnamed party leaders regularly intimated that Smith’s days as chairman were numbered. Even after leaving the chairmanship, Smith 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 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 Mary Louise Smith’s mark on Republican history.    

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Cover, Title Page

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p. 1-1


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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

My thanks to all of the people who generously gave recollections to this work. You provided insight and detail into Mary Louise Smith’s leadership that is not available elsewhere. A list of the people who were interviewed is in the bibliography...

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pp. 1-6

Thousands of delegates to the 1976 Republican National Convention greeted friends and milled around the floor of the Kemper Arena, Kansas City, Missouri. Representatives of President Gerald Ford’s camp and of Ronald Reagan’s camp vied for the delegates that would give their candidate the winning margin in the quest for the presidential...

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Chapter One: A Woman From Eddyville

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pp. 7-19

“The fact that I’m a woman will be noticed,” Mary Louise Smith told reporters. Her understatement got a laugh. Everyone at the press conference knew that newspapers across the country would place the story on the front page. The next day, September 5, 1974, the Washington Post version led with: “Women made...

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Chapter Two: Political Beginnings

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pp. 20-31

In the early twenty-first century, it may be difficult to imagine a person entering politics without an agenda as motivation. The compelling issue for evangelical Christians, for example, might be to ban abortions or same sex marriages or to eliminate the teaching of evolution from public school curricula. For other Republicans...

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Chapter Three: National Committeewoman

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pp. 32-43

“I love conventions. I really do,” Mary Louise Smith told an interviewer in the early 1990s. At the time, she had attended eight Republican national conventions and would attend one more. The 1976 convention, which nominated Gerald R. Ford, was her favorite. The reason was simple: she organized that one...

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Chapter Four: Opportunites and Issues

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pp. 44-53

Political advisers and observers agree that when a party loses, particularly the White House, the party chairman is the scapegoat. The defeated presidential candidate may influence who becomes the next chairman, as in 1964 when Barry Goldwater played a role, or candidates may present themselves and a competitive election...

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Chapter Five: Republican National Committee Co-Chairman

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pp. 54-65

After the 1972 general elections, President Richard Nixon once again wanted a new team at the Republican National Committee. When George H. W. Bush received a phone call from the White House asking him to meet Nixon at Camp David, his wife, Barbara, thought Nixon planned...

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Chapter Six: Madam Chairman

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pp. 66-88

By August 1974, Mary Louise Smith had watched the dance for selecting a new party chairman five times: Dean Burch in 1964, Ray Bliss in 1965, Rogers Morton in 1969, Bob Dole in 1971, and George H. W. Bush in 1973. Morton, Dole, and Bush had served in Congress; Burch was a lawyer; and Bliss had chaired the Ohio Republican...

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Chapter Seven: A Party with No Credibility

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pp. 89-105

In the fall of 1974, according to an RNC senior staff member, the Republican Party had no credibility. Several Republican operatives and leaders were jailed or under indictment for their involvement in Watergate. The number of Republicans in Congress had reached dismal levels. The state parties were in disarray. The party’s state...

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Chapter Eight: Rebuilding the Party

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pp. 106-116

After the leadership conference, Mary Louise Smith and her team took the next step to rebuild the party: a national educational campaign that began in mid-March and continued through May. An intense, aggressive program of twenty-eight regional seminars all over the country, it echoed the themes presented at the national leadership...

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Chapter Nine: The Feminist

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pp. 117-124

When Mary Louise Smith labeled herself a feminist in 1972, she understood the tensions in the phrase “Republican feminist.” She told the 1977 NWPC convention, “I’m pleased and proud to be here as a political activist and I’m pleased and proud to be here as a Republican feminist.” She continued, “Some people in the public, in the press...

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Chapter Ten: The Convention

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pp. 125-137

“Of course then came along the idea of the convention which had never occurred to me when I took the office,” Mary Louise Smith said in a 1993 interview, referring to the 1976 Republican national convention. “That you had to organize and call to order a convention. And you know I’m not an attorney. I’m not a parliamentarian. I’m grass roots organization...

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Chapter Eleven: The Party Turns to the Right

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pp. 138-147

Speculation about Mary Louise Smith’s future began immediately after the general election. Political observers did not know that, for the most part, Smith had made a decision, and it had nothing to do with the rising forces of conservatives. The reason would not be visible to most observers other than her closest intimates. Elmer’s health continued...

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Chapter Twelve: Civil Rights and Peace

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pp. 148-160

The distance the party had traveled between 1976 and 1980—only four years—away from moderation and toward increasingly conservative positions was dramatic. Equally dramatic was the change in Mary Louise Smith’s status in the party. In those four years, she had gone from party chairman to party outsider. The anger that conservatives...

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Conclusion: One Last Convention

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pp. 161-164

By 1996, Mary Louise Smith’s alienation from the Republican Party’s leadership was undeniable. She was not alone; other stalwart, faithful party members had been marginalized as well. They shared two primary common traits: they were fiscal conservatives and social moderates. There was at least one difference, however. Smith was a former party...


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pp. 165-184


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pp. 185-192


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pp. 193-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272942
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219954

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2012