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.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]