MARGARET CHASE SMITH
December 14,1897- May 29, 1995
Today we are honoring one of the most well-known women in our modern history, Margaret Chase Smith. Born in Skowhegan, ME, a descendant of immigrants and the oldest of 6 children, her dad was the town barber and mom worked as a waitress, a clerk, and a shoe factory worker. At 12, Margaret went to work at the “Five & Dime” store, and by graduation she was an operator with the phone company. In that position she met Clyde Smith, who arranged a job for her as assistant to the tax collector. She became an executive for the Maine Telephone and Telegraph Company, and then joined the staff of the Independent Reporter, becoming circulation manager. She founded a chapter of the Business and Professional Women in 1922, and by 1926, she became state president of BPW. On May 14, 1930, she married Clyde Smith, who was 21 years her senior.
Her political career began after her marriage when she was elected to the Maine Republican State Committee. When Clyde was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, she accompanied her husband to Washington, D.C. and served as his secretary. And like most secretaries she managed the office, handled all correspondence, conducted research, and helped write his speeches. In 1940, her husband fell seriously ill and asked Margaret to run for his seat. Facing no opponents, Margaret won the special election, and then went on to win in her own right. Over the next 8 years, Margaret was re-elected 3 more terms, never receiving less than 60% of the vote.
In 1946, Margaret became a member of the Armed Services Committee, and sponsored the passage of Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, a bill to regularize the status of women in armed forces. Smith also earned the reputation as a moderate Republican who often broke ranks with her party, supporting much of President Roosevelt’s New Deal Legislation, and in 1940, voted in favor of the Selective Service Act.
In 1947, Smith faced 3 men in the Republican primary for the Senate seat. Her slogan was “Don’t change a record for a promise.” When the wife of one of her opponents questioned whether a woman would be a good Senator, Smith replied, “Women administer the home; they set the rules, enforce them, mete out justice for violations, and like Congress they legislate; like the Executive, they administer, like the courts, they interpret the rules. This is ideal experience for politics.” Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to represent Maine in the Senate, and the first woman to serve in both houses in Congress. Smith became the first member of Congress to condemn the anti-Communist witch hunt led by fellow Republican Senator, Joe McCarthy. In 1950, Smith delivered a 15-minute speech known as the “Declaration of Conscience.” She never mentioned McCarthy’s name, but denounced the “reckless abandon where unproved charges were hurled from his side of the aisle.” She said McCarthyism debased the Senate to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination and defended every American’s right to criticize, right to hold unpopular beliefs, right to protest, and the right of independent thought. Acknowledging her desire for Republican political success, she said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny…fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear. In response, McCarthy referred to Smith (and 6 other Senators) as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”
In the 1952 election Smith was widely mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate under Gen. Eisenhower. When asked what she’d do if she woke up one morning and found herself in the White House, she replied, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.”
Smith was the first (and only) woman to serve as chair of the Senate Republican Conference. She voted against Nixon’s unsuccessful nominees to the Supreme Court; she was a strong supporter of the space program and served on the Senate Aeronautical and Space Committee. NASA Administrator, James Webb, commented that the US never would have placed a man on the moon if it were not for Margaret Chase Smith. She also supported increased educational funding, civil rights and Medicare.
In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith announced her candidacy for President of the United States. She declared, “I have few illusions, and no money, but I’m staying until the finish.” And she did just that! She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W.Bush on July 6, 1989.
She was a member of the House of Representatives from 1940 – 1949. She was a United States Senator from 1949 – 1973. She was the Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference from 1967-1973. She was also the oldest living U.S. Senator. Upon leaving office, Margaret Chase Smith was the longest serving female Senator in history, a distinction that was not surpassed until January 5, 2011, when Senator Barbara Mikulski was sworn in for her fifth term.
Margaret Chase Smith was a warrior and voted against the nuclear test ban treaty. In 1970, she issued a “Declaration of Conscience,” deploring hatred and extremism of the Vietnam War. She died at age 97. Margaret Chase Smith, a true First Woman In History, showed us how one woman could make a difference.
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