A Women’s Political Icon: Margaret Chase Smith
Today is International Women’s Day. In honor of the day (as well as Women’s History Month), I thought it would be fitting to offer a up a brief bio on the first woman to serve in both the U.S. house and the senate, Margaret Chase Smith.
Born in 1897 in Skowhegan Maine, Margaret grew up in a large family of 6 children: Only 4 of which would survive childhood. Growing up under modest means, she began working at the age of 12. After graduating high school in 1916, she met local politician and future husband Clyde Smith, her greatest influence to her future political career.
During the roaring 20’s, Smith became heavily involved in local and state politics. Championing women’s issues, she would co-found the Skowhegan chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club, and later served as president of the Maine Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club. After marrying Clyde Smith in 1930, she was elected to the Maine Republican State Committee, a position she would hold until 1936.
In 1937, her husband Clyde was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives: He served until 1940, the year he died of a massive heart attack. After Clyde’s death, Margaret ran for his 2nd Congressional District seat, and was elected unopposed. While becoming a fixture on the House Naval Affairs committee, she was a Republican moderate known for voting her conscience. She supported much of FDR’s New Deal legislation, and in her later years as senator, she vehemently opposed Joseph McCarthy‘s communist witch hunts. In 1950 as a U.S. senator, she would deliver on the senate floor her speech
Declaration of Conscience, in which she would roundly condemn McCarthy and his unfounded attacks.
As previously mentioned, Ms Smith served on the House Naval Affairs Committee during the war, as well as the House Armed Services Committee. During her tenure in congress, she sponsored legislation that would give women permanent status in the military in 1948, and became known as the mother of the Navy Waves.
In 1948, she decided to run for the senate: she won easily, receiving more votes than her three opponents combined. She would serve there until 1972, when for the first time, she lost an election. Her time in the Senate, may have been her most noteworthy: She was mentioned by many as a possible running mate for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. In 1964, she ran for president, becoming the first female to place herself in nomination. She placed 5th at the Republican National Convention.
In addition, her time as senator from Maine would include the chair of the Senate Republican Conference. Known for her staunch support of the military, she was also firmly in favor of the space program. She was a charter member of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Committee, and was a primary driving force in NASA putting a man on the moon in 1969. Ms Smith was also a firm supporter of educational funding, civil rights, and Medicare.
After she lost the election of 1972, she would live out her remaining days in her hometown of Skowhagen. She died in 1995 from a stroke, at the age of 97. In 1989, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1995, she was awarded the Naval Heritage Award for her long history of supporting the Navy as well as the WAVES. In addition, Ms Smith was the longest serving female senator until 2011, when Barbara Mikurski surpassed her with her election to her 5th term.
There you have it: Margaret Chase Smith was a woman born of modest means from a small town in Maine, and grew up to become one of the most influential women in American politics for over 3 decades. She was a politician and pioneer, paving the way for aspiring women politicians who serve our country today. Though a Republican, she voted her conscience and was not afraid to support legislation generated from both sides of the aisle. Mother of the Waves, and champion of the space program, she was her own woman who gracefully forged her way down a path dominated by men. She stood up to Joe McCarthy, and almost landed a seat in the White House- twice. She was a remarkable woman, recognized by the single red rose she wore daily pinned to her lapel.
Thank you Margaret Chase Smith for all that you have done. You may no longer be a household name, but when I think of today’s best and brightest women in politics, I will think of you.
I hope that powerful women such as Hillary Clinton, Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren hold your name dear in their hearts.
I know I do.