Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, was a breaker of glass ceilings and a political maverick. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Maine and the first to serve in the United States House of Representatives and Senate. She was a voice of moderation who recoiled from the harsh tactics of her Senate colleague Joe McCarthy and denounced him in a memorable speech that entered the annals of 20th century Senate oratory. She made history in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco when her name was formally placed in nomination for the office of president of the United States.
Margaret Chase was born in the closing days of 1897 in the small town of Skowhegan, Maine. Her father was a barber and she worked in his shop, developing a strong work ethic that would help elevate her far beyond her modest background. After graduating from high school, Chase became a schoolteacher and later worked for a variety of businesses, including a local newspaper. She married its politically ambitious proprietor, Clyde Smith; upon his election to Congress, she accompanied him to Washington as his secretary.
Clyde’s tenure would be short; his rackety personal life caught up with him; he suffered a heart attack in 1940 during his second term. Knowing he did not have long to live, he asked his wife to run for his seat. He wrote a public declaration to his constituents: “I know of no one who has the full knowledge of my ideas and plans or is as well qualified as she is, to carry on these ideas and my unfinished work for my district.” They honored his wishes, and she won a special election a few months later. The following year, the United States entered World War II and the popular new Congresswoman devoted herself to military issues, serving on the Naval Affairs Committee and later the Armed Services Committee. In keeping with the moderate character of her district and state, she championed bipartisanship but was never shy about criticizing presidents of either party. In a 2016 New Yorker article, Ellen Fitzpatrick observed, “Smith considered her grit and independence a birthright—qualities as quintessentially Maine as her state’s rocky coastline, pine forests, quiet villages, and resilient working men and women.”
Higher office later beckoned; after eight years in the House, she ran in a hotly contested race for the Senate, batting away criticism that as a woman she was unsuited to higher office: “Women administer the home. They set the rules, enforce them, mete out justice for violations. Thus, like Congress, they legislate; like the Executive, they administer; like the courts, they interpret the rules. It is an ideal experience for politics.” She easily defeated her primary opponents and coasted to victory in the general election.
Smith entered the Senate in 1949 at the dawn of McCarthyism, and while she did not dismiss the danger posed by internal Communist subversion in the American government, she deplored McCarthy’s methods. This led her to deliver a memorable address in the Senate on June 1, 1950, that she called her “Declaration of Conscience”. It was a forceful speech in which she criticized the Truman administration for its “complacency to the threat of communism and the leak of vital secrets to Russia through key officials”, but observed, “There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.” She warned that to displace the Democratic administration “with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Her “Declaration” won few supporters in the charged environment of the McCarthy era, and the fiery Wisconsin senator exacted revenge by replacing Smith on the Permanent Investigation subcommittee with a young California colleague, Richard M. Nixon. But she had elevated her profile and enhanced her future political prospects.
During the Kennedy administration, Smith emerged as a potential Republican candidate for president in 1964. A wary President Kennedy, asked by reporters about her chances, replied, “I think she is very formidable, if that is the appropriate word to use about a very fine lady…She is a very formidable political figure.”
Kennedy’s assassination and the elevation of Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency altered the political landscape but Smith pressed ahead with her plans, announcing her campaign in January 1964. She acknowledged the challenges: “there are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House —that this is a man’s world and that it should be kept that way—and that a woman on the national ticket of a political party would be more of a handicap than a strength.” But she was undeterred and ran a national campaign on an almost nonexistent budget. Her parsimony would prove as much an obstacle as her gender, and she lost every primary. In any event, the party was in the mood for fierce ideological combat, and the Republican National Convention nominated Smith’s conservative colleague from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who would go on to lose the general election to Johnson in a landslide.
Smith’s long tenure on Capitol Hill came to an end after the election of 1972, when, despite President Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection that year, she was defeated by her Democratic challenger. By then she had become a Washington fixture and was seen as out of touch by many of her constituents. Yet she returned home to Maine, where she enjoyed the laurels of her long career, lecturing and receiving awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989. She would enjoy more than two decades in retirement, passing away at the age of 97 in the same small town where her life and remarkable career had begun.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.