Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith served 32 years in Congress and was the first woman elected to both the House and Senate.  Although a champion for women’s issues, she was always clear about being seen as a U.S. Senator and not a woman Senator.  In 1964, she became the first credible female candidate for president.

A liberal Republican closely associated with her native state of Maine, Margaret Madeline Chase was born to a blue-collar Skowhegan family in 1897.  Her entry into politics began when her employer suggested that she be added to the Skowhegan Town Committee.  She still was carrying out traditional wifely duties, however, as this helped husband, Clyde Smith, be elected the U.S. House in 1936.  She moved to Washington and served as his aide, doing research on pending bills and assisting with speeches.

When Clyde died in 1940, Margaret won the special election to succeed him, and three months later, Maine voters elected her to the first of four full House terms.  Smith made an excellent addition to the era’s veteran congresswomen, including Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway, Massachusetts’ Edith Nourse Rogers, and New Jersey’s Mary T. Norton. 

Prioritizing Maine’s maritime interests, Smith served on the House Naval Affairs Committee; she eventually rose to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  To some extent, her career was limited by the fact that she was a Republican during Democratic control:  she did not get the chairmanships that Democratic congresswomen did, and when Republicans later took control, they did not reward her.

World War II was already underway in Europe when Smith was elected.  Just days after Pearl Harbor, Rep. Rogers introduced the bill that created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and when the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) began a few months later, Margaret Chase Smith was appropriately dubbed “mother of the WAVES.”  Again because her maritime expertise, she led the founding of the Coast Guard’s female unit, the SPARS, as well as the Women Marines. 

She also sponsored the 1944 bill that finally allowed women in the naval branches to serve in Alaska, Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone:  the WAC, in contrast had been on overseas fronts for two years, while both the Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps had served foreign duty for decades.  Their rank and pay never were equivalent to those of men, however, and Smith joined other congresswomen in improving that situation.  She personally inspected naval bases around the globe, and decades later, was a strong supporter of the space program.  NASA director said, “If it were not for a woman, Margaret Chase Smith, we never would have placed a man on the moon.” 

Smith moved up to the Senate in 1948, defeating both Maine’s current governor and a former governor.  She took a big risk in 1950 when she became the first Republican member of the Senate to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade in her “Declaration of Conscience” speech.  Many of her colleagues said that this was “political suicide,” but Smith felt it important to condemn McCarthy’s false accusations.  Calling Smith and her seven co-signers, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” McCarthy removed her from an investigating subcommittee, replacing her with newly elected Richard M. Nixon.

Her 1960 re-election was a milestone for women, as it was the first time that two women were nominated for a U.S. Senate seat:  Smith easily defeated Democratic nominee Lucia Cormier.  Nationally respected by 1964, Smith ran for president.  Most states did not yet conduct primaries, but she ran credibly in those that did, and won the votes of 27 delegates at the Republican National Convention that nominated the much more conservative Barry Goldwater. 

At 66, ageism joined sexism as a factor in her loss.  She was not credited with for her greater experience; instead pundits speculated about whether Senator Smith was menopausal. Her point that “I haven’t seen the age played up in the case of the men candidates” was in vain.

Maine voters returned Smith to the Senate until 1972.  By then the Vietnam War was tearing the nation apart, and her Republican association with the Nixon White House was a liability.  She also made a serious mistake in failing to maintain a Maine office, and after 32 years of winning, lost to Democrat William Hathaway. When she left office, Smith held the Senate voting record with 2,941 consecutive roll calls.  Her defeat left the Senate without any female presence for the first time in a quarter-century. 

Honored four times as the Associated Press Woman of the Year, she also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.  Margaret Chase Smith died in 1995, her 98th year.



Works Cited:

  • Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"