SMITH, Margaret Chase

Image Courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office
1897–1995

Biography

For more than three decades, Margaret Chase Smith served as a role model for women aspiring to national politics. As the first woman to win election to both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, Smith cultivated a career as an independent and courageous legislator. Senator Smith bravely denounced McCarthyism at a time when others feared speaking out would ruin their careers. Though she believed firmly that women had a political role to assume, Smith refused to make an issue of her gender in seeking higher office. "If we are to claim and win our rightful place in the sun on an equal basis with men," she once noted, "then we must not insist upon those privileges and prerogatives identified in the past as exclusively feminine."1

Margaret Madeline Chase was born on December 14, 1897, in Skowhegan, Maine—the oldest of six children—to George Emery, the town barber, and Carrie Murray Chase, a waitress, store clerk, and shoe factory worker.2 After graduating from Skowhegan High School in 1916, Chase took jobs as a teacher, telephone operator, and office manager for a woolen mill and on the staff of a small newspaper. In 1930, she married Clyde Harold Smith, an accomplished local politician.3 In 1936, Clyde Smith was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives for the 75th Congress (1937–1939). Margaret Smith managed his Washington office and also served as president of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Maine. She also worked on behalf of the Maine GOP committee.

In the spring of 1940, Representative Clyde Smith fell ill with a life–threatening heart condition. Realizing that he could not survive the rigors of an election campaign, he persuaded his wife to run for his seat in the general election the following November. Before his death on April 8, 1940, the Congressman told voters, "I know of no one else who has the full knowledge of my ideas and plans or is as well qualified as she is, to carry on these ideas or my unfinished work for the district."4 His seat left vacant with his passing, Margaret Chase Smith declared her candidacy for the special election to serve out his unexpired term in the 76th Congress (1939–1941).5 In the May 13, 1940, Republican special primary, Smith topped her challenger by a more–than 10–to–1 margin, virtually assuring her election to the House in the heavily Republican district.6 Without a Democratic challenger, she won the June 3 special election, becoming Maine's first woman Member of Congress. On June 17, 1940, only a week after being seated in the House, Congresswoman Smith won the GOP primary for the full term in the 77th Congress (1941–1943), garnering more than 27,000 votes and amassing more than four times the total of her nearest competitor.7 Her second primary triumph dispelled a popular notion that voters would abandon her—having believed that by electing her to a brief term they had fulfilled their obligation to seeing her husband's programs through to conclusion.

In the 1940 general election, Smith ran on a platform of military preparedness (including expansion of the navy, which played well in her shipbuilding district) and support for old–age pensions and assistance, which appealed to the state's large elderly population. She portrayed herself as a moderate who, in contrast to liberal feminists, would work within the established order; she employed that argument for many later campaigns. Smith drew upon her experiences campaigning with her husband, particularly his ability to strike up personal relationships with voters.8 Smith won the general election over Democrat Edward Beauchamp, with 65 percent of the vote. After her 1940 campaigns, Smith was re–elected to the three succeeding Congresses with relatively little challenge, defeating her opponents with 60 percent or more of the vote.9

As a freshman in 1940, Representative Smith had hoped to carry on her husband's work on the Labor Committee, but she was instead pushed onto four low–level committees: War Claims; Revision of the Laws; Invalid Pensions; and the Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress.10 Though she often broke with her GOP colleagues on important votes, party leaders answered her persistent request for a better committee assignment in the 78th Congress (1943–1945). Smith received a position on the prominent House Naval Affairs Committee—a fair compromise after her strategic request for the highly coveted Appropriations panel. "When I asked for a committee, I asked for Appropriations, knowing that I would not get it," Smith recalled, "I asked for it, because that was the thing to do in those days. You didn't expect to get what you asked for, so you would ask for something that was impossible… . And Naval Affairs was what I wanted; I didn't want Appropriations … I think I was smart."11 In addition to her Naval Affairs duties, Smith served on the Education Committee and the Post Office and Post Roads Committee. After the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 merged disparate committees with military jurisdictions, the Congresswoman was assigned to the Armed Services Committee.

Smith was an active member of the Naval Affairs and Armed Services Committees. Her position gave her power to award shipbuilding projects in Maine. It also made her an expert on military and national security matters, leading to her participation in an investigation of the construction of destroyers and the inspection of bases in the South Pacific. In addition, Smith participated in a trip to observe the postwar reconstruction in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Though she expressed concern for the spread of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Smith remained wary of domestic communist fears. She voted against legislation to make the House Select Committee on Un–American Activities permanent.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Smith passed her landmark legislative achievement in the House: the Women's Armed Forces Integration Act. With a wartime peak enrollment of about 350,000, women were still considered volunteers for the armed services and did not receive any benefits.12 In April 1947, while chairing the Armed Services' Subcommittee on Hospitalization and Medicine, Smith passed a bill giving regular status to navy and army nurses—well–accepted by her House colleagues because it covered women in traditional, "angel of mercy" roles.13 When the Armed Forces Integration Act, providing for the permanent inclusion of all uniformed women in the military, easily passed the Senate in July 1947, Smith faced a greater challenge pushing the bill through the House. Opponents on the Armed Services Committee amended it over Smith's lone dissenting vote, significantly curtailing women's rights and benefits by offering them reserve status. The House passed the committee's version. In an effort to restore the bill's original intent in the conference committee, Smith appealed to her personal friend, Secretary of Defense William Forrestal, who gave her his full backing. Smith prevailed when the House conferees accepted a version of the legislation granting women regular status on June 2, 1948. President Harry Truman signed the bill into law 10 days later, just weeks before he racially integrated the armed forces by Executive Order.14

In 1947, when Maine's senior U.S. Senator, Republican Majority Leader Wallace White, announced he would not seek a fourth term, Smith entered the hotly contested 1948 primary to succeed him. The state Republican Party, stung by Smith's many votes across party lines, opposed her candidacy and supported Maine Governor Horace A. Hildreth in the four–way race. Running on the slogan, "Don't trade a record for a promise," Smith insisted that her legislative achievements in the House were worth more than the campaign promises of her opponents.15 The personal touch that marked her House campaigns also aided in her senatorial bid. As she crisscrossed the state making speeches and meeting personally with constituents, many simply addressed her by her first name, "Margaret," with the kind of intimacy indicative of an old friendship.16 A large corps of Maine women volunteers also greatly aided her shoestring, grass–roots campaign.17 In the June 21 primary, Smith received nearly 64,000 votes, a greater margin the combined votes of her three challengers. After capturing the primary, Smith won a lopsided election, defeating Democrat Adrian Scolten with 71 percent of the vote. Smith's election marked the first time a woman won election to the Senate without the widow or appointment connection and the first time a woman served in both chambers. Smith was re–elected to the Senate three more times by comfortable majorities.18

Despite her experience in the House, Smith needed to earn her seniority in the Senate. In her first term, she received three less powerful assignments: Committee on the District of Columbia, Committee on Rules and Administration, and the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments (after the 83rd Congress [1953–1955], named Government Operations). When Republicans briefly controlled the chamber in the 83rd Congress, Smith earned seats on two prominent committees which no woman had held before: Appropriations and Armed Services. She gave up Government Operations for an assignment on the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee in the 86th Congress (1959–1961)—a particularly influential panel at the dawn of the space race with the Soviet Union.19 She maintained a place on these three key panels for the remainder of her Senate career.

Margaret Chase Smith's defining moment in the U.S. Senate came on June 1, 1950, when she took the Senate Floor to denounce the investigatory tactics of the redbaiting Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. In a speech she later called a "Declaration of Conscience," Smith charged that her Republican colleague had "debased" Senate deliberations "through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance." She said, "The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists' or ‘Fascists' by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others."20 Although the speech attracted favorable nationwide attention and was endorsed by six fellow Republicans in the Senate, it did little to restrain Senator McCarthy and his supporters. McCarthy ridiculed Senator Smith on the Senate Floor, and he poured political capital into the campaign of Smith's 1954 GOP rival. Late in 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct of the Army– McCarthy hearings, effectively silencing him. Despite Smith's bravery in standing up to McCarthy, her reputation as a political maverick limited her later potential in the Senate. Among the costs were her removal from the Republican Policy Committee and a drop in seniority on the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee.21

In the Senate, Smith remained more of an independent than a party–line Republican vote. The Senator's meticulous and independent nature was most evident in her rejection of several high–profile presidential nominees. In 1957, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Hollywood actor, decorated World War II veteran, and army reservist James ("Jimmy") Stewart for promotion to brigadier general, Senator Smith recommended against his promotion. She led an unexpected rejection of Commerce Secretary nominee Lewis L. Strauss in 1959, marking the third time in a century that a Cabinet appointment was rejected and deeply angering the Eisenhower administration.22 Nearly a decade later, Smith enraged the Richard M. Nixon White House when she and fellow Senators rejected Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell. Smith's independence on high–visibility issues made it hard to categorize her politics and somewhat diminished her influence. On the domestic front, the Senator supported legislation for primarily Democratic initiatives on educational funding and civil rights. However, Smith supported a much more aggressive foreign policy than that of the John F. Kennedy administration. After the Berlin Crisis of 1961, she accused President Kennedy of lacking the resolve to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, chiding the President on the Senate Floor, "In short, we have the nuclear capability but not the nuclear credibility."23 In her long career, Smith became a Senate institution in her own right. From June 1, 1955, to September 6, 1968, she cast 2,941 consecutive roll call votes. Her streak was interrupted only by recovery from hip surgery.

After months of denying rumors that she would seek the top of the Republican ticket or the vice presidential nomination, Senator Margaret Chase Smith announced her run for President in January 1964. "I have few illusions and no money, but I'm staying for the finish," she noted, "When people keep telling you, you can't do a thing, you kind of like to try."24 Smith embarked on her typical grass–roots campaign—losing every primary but picking up a surprising high of 25 percent of the vote in Illinois.25 At the 1964 Republican Convention, she became the first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party. Receiving the support of just 27 delegates and losing the nomination to Senate colleague Barry Goldwater, it was a symbolic achievement.

To the surprise of many across the country, Maine voters turned the venerable septuagenarian out of office in 1972, during her bid for a fifth consecutive term. Prior to the election, Smith had given serious consideration to retiring, but charges that she was too old—at age 74—to serve as a Senator had motivated her to run for re–election. The Democratic nominee, Maine U.S. Representative William D. Hathaway, emphasized Smith's age. He also claimed Smith was inaccessible and inattentive to Maine's concerns, citing the fact that she did not maintain an office in the state. Smith lost the election by 27,230 votes, a margin of 53 to 47 percent.26

Smith resettled in Skowhegan to oversee the construction of the Margaret Chase Smith Library Center, the first of its kind to focus its collection on the papers of a female Member of Congress. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Margaret Chase Smith died on May 29, 1995, at the age of 97, in her hometown of Skowhegan.

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 July 1946): A4378–A4379.

2On parents' employment, Mary Kaptur, Women of Congress: A Twentieth–Century Odyssey (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996): 85.

3"Rep. Clyde H. Smith of Maine, Was 63," 9 April 1940, New York Times: 29.

4Quoted in Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: The Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000): 42.

5"Mrs. Smith To Seek Place of Husband," 9 April 1940, Washington Post: 9; "Clyde Smith's Widow Files," 16 April 1940, New York Times: 15.

6"Rep. Clyde Smith's Widow Nominated by Maine G.O.P.," 14 May 1940, Washington Post: 1.

7Patricia Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention (Orono: University of Maine Press, 1996): 108–113; Sherman, No Place for a Woman: 47.

8Sherman, No Place for a Woman: 44–45.

9"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

10Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976): 75.

11Kaptur, Women of Congress: 86.

12David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 776.

13Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: 163.

14Harry S. Truman, "Executive Order 9981," Truman Presidential Museum and Library, http://www.trumanlibrary.org/9981.htm (accessed 22 February 2005).

15Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 143.

16Helen Henley, "Maine GOP Nominates Mrs. Smith for Senator," 22 June 1948, Christian Science Monitor: 5; Josephine Ripley, "Women Hail Smith Victory in Maine," 23 June 1948, Christian Science Monitor: 7.

17Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: 181–182.

18"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

19The space race began when the Russians successfully launched the first satellite into space. Sputnik I orbited the earth in October 1957. The Russian satellite was followed by the January 1958 launch of the American Explorer I, a small satellite used for collecting scientific data (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, "Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age," http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/ sputnik/ (accessed 18 February 2005).

20Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Cong., 2nd sess. (1 June 1950): 7894–7895.

21Sherman, No Place for a Woman: 117–118.

22Chamberlain, A Minority of Members: 146.

23Congressional Record, Senate, 87th Cong., 1st sess. (23 September 1961): 20626.

24Tolchin, Women in Congress: 76.

25"The 1964 Elections," Congress and the Nation, 1945–1964, Vol. 1–A (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1965): 54.

26Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, "Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Broadcast Pioneers Library
University of Maryland Hornbake Library

College Park, MD
Papers: 3 audiotapes (1963-1964) in Westinghouse Broadcasting Company collection, 1945-1981.

Columbia University
Rare Book and Manuscript Library

New York, NY
Papers: 1 letter (March 5, 1970) in the Academy of Political Science papers; 2 official letters (1968-1971) in the Council on Religion and International Affairs papers; 2 official letters (1954, 1955) in the V.K. Wellington Koo collection; 1 letter (September 28, 1961) in the Lenroot collection; 1 official letter (August 29, 1950) in the Allan Nevins collection; 2 personal business letters (1952, 1961) in the W.W. Norton collection; 10 personal business letters (1945-1970) in the Overbrook Press collection; 5 official letters (1944-1951) in the Frances Perkins collection; 2 personal business letters (December 20, 1961; July 22, 1970) in the Random House collection; in Stein and Day Publishers records, 1963-1988; and 1 letter in Citizens Committee for the Protection of the Environment records, 1966-1969. Finding aids.

Cornell University Libraries
Rare Books and Manuscript Collections

Ithaca, NY
Papers: Correspondence in Curtis Putnam Nettels papers, 1917-1981.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

Austin, TX
Oral History: August 20, 1975. 49 pages.

Library of Congress
Manuscript Division

Washington, DC
Papers: Correspondence in Charl Ormond Williams papers, 1924-1959.

Maine Historical Society

Portland, ME
Papers: Correspondence, 1960' and 1970's, in the Edward I. Bernstein collection, 1898-2014.

Margaret Chase Smith Library

Skowhegan, ME
Papers: 1930-1995. Ca. 275 feet. Personal, business, and congressional papers and correspondence; scrapbooks; speeches; news releases; photographs; portraits; motion-picture film; videotape; sound recordings; and memorabilia, including records of her service in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and activities since her retirement. The collection is arranged into ten categories: articles, audio, books, cartoons, Front Office Notes, photographs, reference, scrapbooks, Statements and Speeches, and Washington and You. The bulk of the collection, approximately 300,000 documents, is contained in more than 90 fireproof file cabinets. These unique primary sources include correspondence between Senator Smith and leading government officials, as well as constituent correspondence and government reports. Another important resource is the over 500 bound scrapbooks that thoroughly document her career as recorded in newspaper accounts and periodical literature. The scrapbooks also contain the newspaper column, Washington and You, written by Senator Smith between 1941 and 1954 and syndicated nationally from 1949 to 1954. Other highlights of the collection are 43 bound volumes of Senator Smith's speeches, press releases, and general statements; over 2400 historical photographs of state, national, and world leaders; and over 400 audio and video recordings of interviews, debates, and speeches. Information about the collection is available through an extensive searchable database.

Mississippi State University
Mitchell Memorial Library

Mississippi State, MS
Papers: 1953. 1 letter in the Hodding and Betty Werlain Carter papers.
Oral History: June 15, 1976. 26 pages. Reminiscence of Stennis, Armed Services Committee, civil rights legislation, her Senate relationship with Stennis, and anecdotes about her service in the Senate. In the John C. Stennis collection.

Radcliffe College
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: Correspondence and references in Florence Ledyard Cross Kitchelt papers, 1885-1961; Pauline Newman papers, 1903-1982; Mildred Buchanan Flagg papers, 1876-1955 (bulk 1900-1955); Martha May Eliot papers, 1891-1979; Adelaide Fish Hawley Cumming papers, 1922-1967; and Pluma Burroughs Penton Batten papers, 1948-1964 (bulk 1950-1956).
Oral History: 1988-1989. 227 pages. Transcript of an interview by Pamela Neal Warford. Finding aid.
Oral History: Ca. 1967. 6 pages. Interview for book about women in government service, Few Are Chosen (1968). In the Peggy Lamson papers.

University of Georgia
Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies

Athens, GA
Oral History: 1971. 16 pages. Limited to reminiscences of Russell.

University of Michigan
Bentley Historical Library

Ann Arbor, MI
Papers: Correspondence in Stella Brunt Osborn papers 1916-1992; and Blair Moody papers, 1928-1954. Finding aid.

University of Oregon

Eugene, OR
Papers: Correspondence in Wayne L. Morse papers, 1919-1969. Finding aid.

Univeraity of Wyoming
American Heritage Center

Laramie, WY
Papers: Correspondence in Morgan Beatty papers, 1922-1973. Finding aid.

Western Reserve Historical Society

Cleveland, OH
Papers: Correspondence in Florence Ellinwood Allen papers, 1856-1967. Finding aid.

Yale University Libraries
Manuscripts and Archives

New Haven, CT
Papers: Correspondence in Harold Phelps Stokes papers, 1908 1969; and Millicent Todd Bingham papers, 1865-1968.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Braden, Maria. "A Rose by Any Other Name," inWomen Politicians and the Media, 50-62. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Crouse, Eric. An American Stand: Senator Margaret Chase Smith and the Communist Menace, 1948-1972. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010.

___. Dear Senator Smith: Small-Town Maine Writes to Senator Margaret Chase Smith about the Vietnam War, 1967-1971. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008.

___. "Senator Margaret Chase Smith Against McCarthyism: The Methodist Influence." Methodist History 46 (April 2008): 167-178.

Gallant, Gregory Peter. "Margaret Chase Smith, McCarthyism, and the Drive for Political Purification." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maine, 1992.

___. Hope and Fear in Margaret Chase Smith's America: A Continuous Tangle. New York: Lexington Books, 2014.

Graham, Frank. Margaret Chase Smith: Woman of Courage. New York: John Day Co., 1964.

Gutgold, Nichola D., "Margaret Chase Smith: A 'Quiet Woman,'" in Paving the Way for Madam President. New York: Lexington Books, 2006.

Harris, Lois Anne. "Margaret Chase Smith: An Examination of Her Public Speaking with Emphasis on the 'Declaration of Conscience, 1950' and the 'Declaration of Conscience, 1970'." Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1974.

Hutchison, Kay Bailey. "Margaret Chase smith." In American Heroines: The Spirited Women Who Shaped Our Country. New York: HarperCollins, 2004: 210-243.

Kaptur, Marcy. "Margaret Chase Smith." In Women of Congress: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, 84-101. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1996.

Lamson, Peggy. Few Are Chosen: American Women in Political Life Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.

Morrison, Dennis L. "Margaret Chase Smith's 1950 Declaration of Conscience Speech." Maine Historical Society Quarterly 32 (Summer 1992): 2-25; 51-55.

Schmidt, Patricia L. Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1996.

Sherman, Janann. "'Senator-at-Large for America's Women': Margaret Chase Smith and the Paradox of Gender Affinity," included in Susan J. Carroll, ed., The Impact of Women in Public Office. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001: 89-116.

___. "'They Either Need These Women or They Do Not': Margaret Chase Smith and the Fight for Regular Status for Women in the Military." The Journal of Military History 54 (January 1990), 47-78.

___. No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Smith, Margaret Chase. Declaration of Conscience. Edited by William C. Lewis, Jr. New York: Doubleday Co., 1972.

Smith, Margaret Chase, and H. Paul Jeffers. Gallant Women. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.

"Margaret Chase Smith," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Vallin, Marlene Boyd. Margaret Chase Smith: Model Public Servant. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Wallace, Patricia Ward. The Politics of Conscience: A Biography of Margaret Chase Smith. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Education
  • House Committee - Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress
  • House Committee - Invalid Pensions
  • House Committee - Naval Affairs
  • House Committee - Post Office and Post Roads
  • House Committee - Revision of Laws
  • House Committee - War Claims
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