United States Senator Profile: Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME)

Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine

(1897-1995)

 

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A political trailblazer and inspiration to women, Margaret Chase Smith holds the distinction of being the first woman to win election to both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. She was also the first woman in U.S. history to have her name placed in nomination for the Presidency at a major party convention.

Margaret Chase SmithPhoto credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a42977/

Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, ME in 1897, and attended Colby College in Waterville, ME. She began her career as a teacher, the manager of a textile mill, and a newspaper circulation manager.

In 1930 she married Clyde H. Smith, a prominent political leader in Maine, and joined the Republican state committee. When her husband ran for the United States House of Representatives and won in 1936, Margaret Chase Smith assumed responsibilities for managing his Congressional office by serving as his office manager, secretary, and close political advisor.

Clyde Smith died of a heart attack in 1940, and Margaret Chase Smith won a special election to succeed him. She went on to serve more than four full two-year terms in the House of Representatives. While a member of the House of Representatives, she served on the House Naval Affairs Committee during World War II and earned a reputation as a champion of military reform.

Her signature achievement during these years was securing the passage of landmark legislation entitled the "Women's Armed Forces Integration Act" that was designed to provide permanent status to women serving in our nation's military who previously had been viewed as volunteers and denied benefits.

Smith won election to the United States Senate in 1948, defeating prominent Republicans — incumbent Governor Horace Hildreth and former Governor Sumner Sewall - in the primary, and Democrat Adrian Scolten in the general election. She would be reelected to the Senate three times, ultimately serving for 24 years.

Following her retirement from the Senate in 1973, Smith held the distinction of being the longest-serving woman Senator in United States history until January 5, 2011, when Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) was sworn in for her fifth term.

During her 24-year career in the United States Senate, Smith was viewed as an effective and independent champion of the causes she cared passionately about. She was the first woman to ever hold a leadership post in the Senate, as Chair of the Senate Republican Caucus.

She was also considered an expert in national defense and aeronautics. At the height of the Vietnam War and in the early days of the U.S. Space program, Smith held key positions as the ranking Republican on both the Armed Services Committee and the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee.

The respect she earned as a thoughtful and capable public servant fueled support for her to make a run for the office of the Presidency. She announced her candidacy in January 1964, and she made history by having her name placed in nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention, where she ultimately would lose to her fellow Senate colleague Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).

Despite these many accomplishments, Margaret Chase Smith may be most widely identified with her spirited and vocal opposition to the policies and tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) in the 1950s. In a speech entitled "Declaration of Conscience," and delivered in the Senate on June 1, 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith urged the Senate to reject the politics of character assassination and implored her fellow Senators to remember their solemn oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

That speech, which she offered on behalf of herself and Senators Charles W. Tobey (R-NH), George D. Aiken (R-VT), Wayne L. Morse (R/I/D-OR), Irving Ives (R-NY), Edward J. Thye (R-MN), and Robert C. Hendrickson (R-NJ), further enhanced Margaret Chase Smith's reputation for political courageousness and independence.

In recognition of her prominent role as an opponent of Senator McCarthy's approach, Margaret Chase Smith later said, "If I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments but for an act I took as a legislator in the United States Senate when on June 1, 1950 I spoke in the Senate in condemnation of McCarthyism. . . ."1

Smith was also famous for wearing a rose on her lapel daily and for her long campaign to have the rose declared the official flower of the United States, something that Congress finally achieved in 1987, long after her retirement.

Following her defeat for reelection to a fifth Senate term in 1972, Margaret Chase Smith returned to Skowhegan. She died on May 29, 1995, at age 98.

For her trailblazing career as a woman in American politics and her extraordinary commitment to public service, Margaret Chase Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

 

1 Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 522.

 

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