Sheri O’Dell, former action vice president for the National Organization for Women (NOW) (1987-1990) under both Eleanor Smeal and Molly Yard, died Sunday morning after a battle with lung cancer.
O’Dell was a “firebrand” West Virginia organizer who became a dynamic and very popular president of West Virginia NOW. She successfully ran with Smeal in a heavily contested fight for national leadership of NOW in 1985, and was reelected with Yard in 1987. She was always proud that she led the ticket in votes in both elections. O’Dell directed the 1989 March for Women’s Lives that brought over 700,000 people to Washington, DC, helped to spearhead the drive to “Stop Bork!”, and organized the “Freedom Caravan for Women’s Lives” that traveled to more than a dozen states, successfully spearheading opposition to anti-abortion state laws and ballot initiatives in 1986 and 1988.
Smeal, in disbelief, said, “Feminists lost both Molly and Sheri in the same week. They loved each other and worked so beautifully together. Ironically of two different generations, they would pass together. Each made the other shine – together in a myriad of ways they fired up a movement. Sheri was not only a ‘give them hell’ organizer, but also a superb and insightful writer.”
O’Dell began as a reporter for the West Virginia Gazette and a speechwriter for then-Governor Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia before going to Washington for national NOW office. After her vice presidency at NOW, she joined the staff of Craver, Matthews, Smith, & Company, a public interest firm that represented the very causes that were Sheri’s passion. O’Dell, a senior writer and creative strategist for CMS, put her talents to work for initially NOW and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, then Amnesty International, ACLU, and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (formerly Handgun Control, Inc), among others. She also contributed her writing skills to both the Feminist Majority Foundation online and Ms. magazine.
Her boss and longtime friend Roger Craver, in celebrating her remarkable life, said, “In a world sadly marked by far too much complacency and protection of the status quo, Sheri was a passionate, intense voice of outrage and concern. To the uninitiated her down home West Virginia drawl may have briefly masked the incisive and quick mind of the crusader. But only briefly. For when Sheri got rolling the rights and wrongs of the world came vividly alive through her Technicolor language.”
Sheri O’Dell’s life will be celebrated Thursday, September 29, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, West Virginia, and in Washington, DC at a later date. Her surviving life partner Jan Chapin, her brother Jim Farley, and her sister Judy Ford ask that in lieu of flowers that people interested in paying tribute to O’Dell do so by contributing to a charity or cause they believe in, or in West Virginia to contribute to Barbara Ferraro or Pat Hussey’s Covenant House at 600 Shrewsbury Street, Charleston, WV 25301.