Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2003

Alumni Spotlight



Eleanor Smeal
Women's Movement Pioneer Receives UF Honorary Degree

As former president of the National Organization for Women and co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Eleanor Smeal's name has become synonymous with the women's movement. But as a political science graduate student at UF in the early 1960s, the word "feminism" was not part of her vocabulary. "I started reading about women's history, and I was so staggered by the fact that I thought I was so educated, but I had never really read about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton," she says. "This whole period of history had been dismissed."

Smeal decided to attend UF for a master's degree instead of going to law school. "A professor at Duke University told me if I went to law school, I would probably only find work as a law librarian, and I didn't see the point in that."

While she grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, Smeal's family also had a home in Melbourne, Florida, so she was familiar with UF. "When I came to UF in 1961, I was the only woman in the political science graduate program, and I worked with Ruth McQuown. Ruth was definitely a feminist. She wanted a women's party and encouraged me to write about the women's movement for my PhD work."

In addition to reading about women's history, something personal happened that caused Smeal to get involved with the women's movement. After the birth of her children in the mid-1960s, Smeal went through a period of illness. "With almost anyone who really gets turned onto a cause, something has to hit home," she says. "For me, it was my medical situation. Women couldn't get disability insurance. I asked a doctor what happens to women when they get sick and have little children, and he told me they just have a lot of relapses. The attitude of some male doctors and how they treated women as neurotic complainers was horrible." Smeal says this attitude, probably more than anything, led to her involvement with the women's movement.

Smeal finished her PhD classes at UF in the early 1970s and started working on her dissertation. She moved to Pittsburgh and became active in NOW, going from a local officer to the national board in 1973 and elected chair in 1975. The research Smeal started at UF eventually led to her discovery of the gender gap in elections in 1980. She found an eight percent difference between men's and women's votes for Ronald Reagan in his election over Jimmy Carter. "It was clear there were a lot of differences between male and female attitudes on a host of issues," she says. "Everything from social security and women's rights to Medicare and committing troops abroad. Women had been voting since 1920, but our voting power had been ignored for 60 years."

Smeal wrote her dissertation, which was published, with co-author Audrey S. Wells, as a chapter in Women in Politics (1974) edited by Jane S. Jaquette. However, she decided not to come back to UF to defend it. "I needed about two more months to add in footnotes, but there was so much to be done with NOW, so I didn't finish. Ruth always said I should call myself 'doctor' because I essentially got the degree."

Smeal served as NOW's president from 1977 to 1982 and 1985 to 1987. In 1987, she co-founded and assumed the presidency of the Feminist Majority Foundation. The organization specializes in programs that combine research and action to develop long-term, cutting-edge strategies for the political, economic and social empowerment of women. The foundation was the first women's group to launch a Web site (www.feminist.org) and has developed five additional sites since 1995. It also owns Ms. Magazine and started a legislative advocacy arm, the Feminist Majority, as well as the Feminist Majority political action committee.

For Smeal, there are still many issues she wants to tackle. "I would like to eliminate discrimination in social security benefits," she says. "One of the reasons older women are in poverty is that they get about 60 percent of what men get. We still have the job of closing the wage gap, and women still aren't in sufficient numbers in leadership roles.We also need to solve the childcare problem in this country and make a bigger dent on violence towards women."

Smeal says jobs like hers won't make someone rich, but the work is too rewarding not to do. "If you're the kind of person injustices really bother, you shouldn't just feel helpless," she says. "You should empower yourself."

--Allyson A. Beutke

At the CLAS commencement ceremony on May 3, Eleanor Smeal will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from UF. She also will be the keynote speaker. The ceremony starts at 6 pm in the O'Connell Center.

Mike Collins
UF Alumnus Becomes Entrepreneur with Microwave Technology

When Mike Collins graduated from UF in 1965, it was only the beginning of what he calls the "ultimate American Dream." After receiving a PhD from the University of Texas, he went on to work for Celanese Corporation where he met the two men who would complete the name of the microwave technology company he co-founded from the ground up: CEM.

But the "C" is not for Collins--it stands for chemistry. Along with expertise in electronics, "E," and mechanics, "M," the three started CEM out of a garage having only a vision of the potential impact microwave energy could have on scientific research.

"It's been very rewarding starting a company and having the entrepreneurial experience," Collins says. CEM has now reached far beyond the garage and currently has a worldwide staff of 200 people, revenues of $45 million and worldwide leadership in the emerging field of microwave chemistry. The idea is that microwave energy can be used in the laboratory to cut down the time it takes to do chemistry--what once took 24 hours to react now only takes five minutes with the use of the technology.

Collins made the decision to attend UF after his father's military career led his family to Vero Beach during his senior year of high school. "I am very happy it worked out that way. UF is a large school where you get to interact with a lot of different people. It prepared me well to be in a large university with many opportunities for diverse experiences, which I found to be very beneficial."

Though he had been distant from UF for some time, he reconnected with the university when his children decided to follow in the Gator's footsteps. His two sons are both UF graduates, one in biochemistry and the other in chemical engineering, and his youngest daughter, Meghan, currently is a sophomore majoring in molecular biology.

His recent reconnection to Gainesville, however, extends beyond his children. While traveling to visit them, Collins reconnected with the chemistry faculty. In March, he brought the first International Microwaves in Chemistry Conference to Gainesville. Collins says it is great to see the advancements the university continues to make in research and beyond, especially during its 150th celebration.

"It's very significant that the school has endured for this period of time," he says. "It is definitely one of the top 25 learning institutions in the country, and I know it will continue to develop and ultimately become one of the truly great institutes of higher learning in the US."

--Kimberly A. Lopez


Photos:
Courtesy Michael Collins: Collins
Courtesy Feminist Majority Foundation: Smeal

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