Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) was one of the most politically powerful women in American history. She served over eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the sole woman senator during her 24 years in the Senate. She was the first woman to have been elected to both houses of Congress and in 1964 became the first woman to have been nominated for the presidency of the United States by a major political party.

Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, Maine, on December 14, 1897, the eldest of six children born to Carrie and George Chase. Her career began with typical small-town jobs: clerk, telephone operator, various office jobs. She held high offices in business and professional clubs and in Maine's Republican State Committee. She married Clyde Smith, a businessman and politician who won all the 48 offices he sought.

Margaret Smith's election victories are notable. Following the death of her husband, she waged four successful campaigns in seven months to win his Congressional seat in 1940. In 1948 she scored the greatest total vote majority in Maine's history (over 70 percent), defeating three male opponents without party endorsement because leaders feared she could not be elected to the Senate. In 1960 she received the highest percentage total of all Republican senatorial candidates. Campaigning that year for the presidency, Richard Nixon noted that while some might ride into office on "presidential coattails," in Maine he was trying to "hang onto Margaret's skirts." All her campaigns were low-cost and brief since she thought it important to stay on the job until Congress adjourned.

Margaret Chase Smith became known for her highly independent positions. For example, in her first congressional session she supported President Franklin Roosevelt's peacetime Selective Service Act, the arming of U.S. merchant ships, and the Lend-Lease Act. During World War II she sometimes supported liberal legislation and voted with Democrats against the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act (but supported the post-war Taft-Hartley Act that limited labor activities). As the only House Republican to oppose cuts in Truman's 1947 budget, the Chicago Tribune editorialized that she should be "read out of the party." While some thought her a "closet Democrat" she insisted she was a moderate Republican who mainly voted with her party except for a few "dramatic" issues.

A careful examiner of committee witnesses, Smith voted to reject nominees of both Republican and Democratic presidents. She voted against Dwight Eisenhower's nominee Lewis L. Strauss for secretary of commerce; Richard Nixon's Supreme Court nominee, G. Harrold Carswell; and John Kennedy's choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John A. McCone. Drawing upon her expertise in military affairs, Smith rejected promotion for popular actor Jimmy Stewart to Air Force (Reserve) brigadier general until certain additional requirements were met.

She was called a "woman of courage" and a "voice of reason," which seems appropriate. Margaret Chase Smith was the first elected official to speak out against Joseph McCarthy's abuse of Senate privilege in fanning cold-war hysteria in her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" speech four years before the Senate censured McCarthy. She also warned colleagues that chronic absenteeism in Congress was eroding public confidence in them. (In 1972 she held the all-time consecutive roll-call voting record, rarely missing a vote.) She then introduced a constitutional amendment that would expel any senator who missed more than 60 percent of the yes-no votes. Previously she had proposed another constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and to provide for direct nomination and election of presidents and vice-presidents. Neither proposal passed.

While never concentrating on legislation for women, her career demonstrated concern for them as well as for men. She was affectionately called "Mother of the WAVES" for introducing legislation to create Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in World War II. When males objected to non-combat overseas assignments for them on the grounds that women should not have to endure such hardships, she declared: "Then we'd better bring all the nurses home." The measure passed. To those who said that the women's place was in the home, Smith replied that women's place was "everywhere." She never considered herself a feminist, but admitted that she hated to leave the Senate (1972) when there was little indication that a qualified woman was coming in.

Smith also gained an international reputation when, as a member of the Armed Forces Committee, she toured several continents to gain information on the state of America's military forces. She frequently met with high foreign officials and was the first woman to address Iran's legislature (1947).

She made several "patriotic" speeches during the turbulent 1960s and drew verbal fire from Nikita and Nina Khrushchev for challenging President Kennedy to match action with his rhetoric over Soviet interference in Cuba. Smith was easily America's "woman legislator of the century." As a powerful force in the Republican Party for many years, she earned the respect of both Republicans and Democrats for her hard work and level-headed approach to congressional affairs during the administrations of five different presidents. In 1964 she was nominated for president at the Republican convention that eventually chose Barry Goldwater as the GOP candidate.

Campaigning in her usual manner, Smith lost her fifth senatorial race in 1972. Analysts believed her age (74) and Maine's economic problems were primarily responsible. The distinguished senator, holder of 85 honorary degrees and noted for the fresh red rose always worn in her lapel, had served her state and her nation for over 32 years. After congressional retirement she was a Woodrow Wilson visiting professor at various major universities from 1973 to 1976 and served on several important boards of directors.

Smith spent the remaining 19 years of her life in semi-retirement, serving on various boards of directors and giving guest lectures and advice to young people.


Further Reading on Margaret Chase Smith

Autobiographical information and discussion of various career decisions by Margaret Chase Smith are in her Declaration of Conscience (with William C. Lewis, 1972). Considerable biographical data is in Margaret Chase Smith, Woman of Courage (1964) by Frank Graham, Jr., which concentrates on her while describing the activities of a U.S. senator. For the younger reader Alice Fleming's The Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith (1969) is helpful, as is Fleming's Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith (1976). Also see MacCampbell, James C., Margaret Chase Smith: A Biographical Sketch, (Margaret Chase Smith Library Center, 1982).