Skip to main content

Smith, Mary Louise (1914-1997)



  • Existence: 1914 - 1997


Mary Louise Epperson was born October 6, 1914 in Eddyville, Iowa. She graduated in 1935 from the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa) with a B.A. in social work administration and worked as a case worker in Iowa City for the Iowa Employment Relief Administration from 1935 to 1936.

In 1934, while studying at the University of Iowa, Epperson married medical student Elmer M. Smith. They had three children, Margaret, Robert, and James. The couple spent much time apart during their early years of marriage, due to Elmer Smith's medical work for the military. In 1945 the family moved to Eagle Grove, Iowa, where Mary Louise Smith became active in a host of community and civic activities, including the Community Chest and the Board of Education. In 1961, she was named to the Iowa Commission for the Blind.

It was in Eagle Grove, in the 1950s, that Smith first became actively involved with the Republican Party. Through the encouragement of Cathlene Blue, wife of Iowa's former Governor Robert Blue, Smith joined the local Republican Women's Club. She held the positions of precinct committeewoman and county vice-chairman, and in 1961 was membership chair and member of the Executive Committee of the Iowa Council of Republican Women. Smith credits her involvement in the ICRW with providing her political training.

In 1964, Smith won a hard-fought three-way battle for the position of Republican National Committeewoman from Iowa, replacing Anna Lomas, who stepped down that year. As a member of the Republican National Committee, Smith served on various party committees and was a delegate to the party's national conventions. In 1969, Smith became a member of the powerful RNC Executive Committee. That same year, she served as a member of the United States delegation to the Population Commission of UNESCO.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford named Mary Louise Smith to chair the Republican National Committee, the first woman to hold this appointment. She led her party through a particularly difficult time as the party was considered by many to be dying in the wake of Watergate. Smith continually advocated promoting the GOP as a party of inclusiveness.

Smith was an active supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion rights. She was a co-founder of the Iowa Women's Political Caucus and, in 1977, was a delegate to the National Women's Conference in Houston. Also in 1977, she was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

In 1980, in keeping with her alliance with the moderate wing of the party, Smith supported George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. She was dismayed with the platform adopted at the 1980 convention when the Republican party retreated from its earlier support for the ERA. Still, she campaigned for Reagan in 1980 and again in 1984. In 1981 Reagan named her vice chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, an appointment he would later regret and fail to renew.

In 1984 Smith resigned from the RNC and became a National Vice Chair of the Republican Mainstream Committee, a group of moderates dedicated to reestablishing their Party's pro-choice and pro-ERA positions and returning it to its historical identification with civil rights. She continued to support the party by campaigning for George Bush in 1988 and in 1992. Bush appointed Smith to a four-year term on the board of directors of the National Peace Institute in 1990.

In the aftermath of the 1989 Webster Supreme Court decision, pro-choice Republicans formed the National Republican Coalition for Choice and Smith joined its National Advisory Board in 1991. She also became a national steering committee member of Pro-Choice America, a national political action committee to elect pro-choice Republicans, formed in 1990. In 1991 Pro-Choice America awarded her "Republican Woman of the Century." Smith served on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of Mid-Iowa from 1986 through 1992, and in 1989 she also became a member of Planned Parenthood Federation of America's National Leadership Committee.

In addition to her continued support for such causes as women's education and women's political participation, Smith took up issues of aging, among others, with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) of Greater Des Moines, and for ERA Iowa '92, as well as on numerous conferences and charitable bodies. She was the cofounder with Louise Noun of the Louise Noun - Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women's Archives, which opened in 1992 at the University of Iowa Libraries. Mary Louise Smith passed away in 1997.

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Louise Rosenfield Noun papers

Identifier: IWA0035

Feminist and civil liberties activist from Des Moines, Iowa, who was also an art collector, author, and co-founder of the Louise Noun-Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women's Archives.

Dates: 1926-2018

Mary Louise Smith papers

Identifier: IWA0027

First woman to chair the Republican National Committee, serving from 1974 to 1977. Co-founder of the Louise Noun-Mary Louise Smith Iowa Women's Archives.

Dates: 1925-1997

Patricia Geadelmann papers

Identifier: IWA0812

Feminist and physical educator who was a strong proponent of the ERA and Title IX.

Dates: 1965-2006

Additional filters:

2001-2010 2
Cultural artifacts 2
Des Moines (Iowa) 2
Equal rights amendments 2
Iowa City (Iowa) 2