The First Woman to Serve in the U.S. House and Senate, Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Madeline Chase Smith was the first woman to serve on both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. She served on the former from Maine’s 2nd District from 1940-49, then becoming a Senator from Maine in 1949-1973. She is still, to this day, the longest-serving female Senator from the Republican party. Up until Senator Barbara Mikulski was sworn in for her fifth term in 2011, Smith had been the longest-serving female Senator ever.
On December 14, 1897, Margaret Madeline Chase was born in Skowhegan, Maine to barber George Emery and Carrie Matilda Murray Chase. Margaret was the oldest of the couple’s six children. George Chase was descended from immigrants from England in the 17th century. Carrie Chase’s family was French Canadian and had immigrated to Quebec in the 19th century. She worked as a waitress, shoe factory worker, and store clerk.
A young Margaret Chase attended Lincoln and Garfield Elementary Schools. She worked at a local five-and-dime shop at twelve years old, even buying herself her own life insurance policy. When her father was away from his barber shop, she would have his customers. For high school, Chase attended Skowhegan High School, where she played on the girls’ basketball team and then graduated in 1916. During her time in high school, she worked as a substitute operator at a telephone company, which was also where she met her future husband, Clyde Smith. Clyde Smith was a prominent local politician and arranged for Margaret to get a job as the tax assessor’s part-time assistant.
Briefly after high school, Chase taught at a one-room school near Skowhegan called the Pitts School. Meanwhile, she was also coaching the high school’s girl’ basketball team from 1917-18. Then, she went to work as a business executive at Maine Telephone and Telegraph Company for a year. Clyde Smith owned a weekly newspaper in Skowhegan called the Independent Reporter. Chase joined the newspaper’s staff and was Smith’s circulation manager from 1919-28.
Chase cofounded the Business and Professional Women’s Club’s chapter in Skowhegan in 1922 after becoming involved with other local women’s organizations. She was the club’s magazine’s, The Pine Cone, editor. For two years, from 1926 to 28, she served as the Maine Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs’, a statewide organization, president. In 1928, Chase became the treasurer for the New England Waste Process Company. A local textile mill called Daniel E. Cummings Woolen Company employed her that same year as well.
Margaret Chase married Clyde Smith on May 14, 1930. Clyde Smith was twenty-one years Chase’s senior. Soon after the wedding, she became involved in politics, being elected to the Maine Republican State Committee in 1930, where she remained until 1936. Clyde was elected from Maine’s 2nd congressional district to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936. To serve as his secretary, Smith joined her husband in Washington, D.C. She managed his office along with handling his correspondence, conducting research, and helping him write speeches. Her and other wives of congressmen and Cabinet members were on the Congressional Club, of which Smith served as a treasurer for.
Clyde Smith suffered a heart attack in the spring of 1940 and became very ill. So, he asked his wife to run for his seat in the House that September in the upcoming election. In a press release soon after, he said, “I know of no one else 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.” On April 8, 1940, Clyde Smith died and a special election was planned for June 3 so the term could be completed.
No Democratic opponent ran against her, and Smith won the special election, thus making her the first woman elected to Congress from Maine. Three months later, she was then elected to a serve a full term for two years in the House. Democratic mayor of Lewiston, Maine, Edward J. Beauchamp, found himself defeated by Smith with a 65%-35% vote. Throughout the next three elections and eight years, she was reelected and never received less than 60% of the vote.
Smith began to develop a strong interest on the issues of military and national security during her time in office. She was appointed to the House Naval Affairs Committee in 1943 and then assigned to the investigation of destroying production. During the winter of 1944, Margaret Smith made a tour of bases in the South Pacific, totalling 25,000 miles. When she introduced a legislation to create a new organization called the United States Naval Reserve, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, she became known as the “Mother of WAVES”. She was a strong supporter of women serving in the armed forced and championed the legislation that gave permanent status in the military to women after World War II.
In 1945, she was a possible candidate for the Under Secretary of the Navy as a supporter of President Harry S. Truman’s foreign policies. Two years later, Chase was mentioned as a possible candidate for Assistant Secretary of State. Earlier in 1946, Smith had joined the House Armed Services Committee and as the chair of the Subcommittee on Hospitalization and Medicine. Smith sponsored and ensured that the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed. President Truman later signed the bill, which regularized women’s status in the armed forces, in June of 1848.
Earning a reputation as moderate Republican who often broke her party’s ranks, Smith supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation and the Selective Service Act in 1940. On the other hand, she voted against the Smith-Connally act in 1943 and the making the House Un-American Activities Committee a permanent body in 1945.
Throughout her career in public office, Smith wore a red rose as a fixture of her daily attire. She even campaigned for the rose to become the United State’s official flower. Congress approved this years later in 1987.
In August of 1947, Smith announced she would ron for Wallace H. White Jr.’s Senate seat when e declared his retirement. She went up against Horace A. Hildreth, the incumbent Governor, Sumner Sewall, the former governor, and Reverend Albion Beverage in the Republican primaries. Her slogan was “Don’t change a record for a promise.” and her campaign did not have much money either. One of her opponent’s wives even asked her if a woman would be a good senator. In response, Smith said, “Women administer the home. They set the rules, enforce theme, mete out for justice 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.” Margaret Smith won the primary election on June 21, 1948, receiving more votes than her three opponents combined. With a vote of 71% to 29%, Smith beat her Democratic opponent Adrian H. Scolten in the general election on September 13. Margaret Smith was the first woman to become a Senator from Maine along with the first woman in U.S. history to serve in both the House and Senate.
On January 3, 1949, Smith was sworn into the Senate. A year later, she was the first Congress member that condemned fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist witch hunt, which captured the nation’s attention. While originally, Smith had been impressed with accusations of supposed Communists in the State Department by McCarthy, she found herself becoming disillusioned with him when he failed to provide any evidence to support the accusations. A fifteen minute speech was delivered on June 1, 1950 on the Senate floor that would become known as the “Declaration of Conscience”. Smith denounced McCarthy while refusing to directly say his name. McCarthyism, according to her, had “debased” the Senate. Smith continued to defend Americans’, “rights to criticize… right to hold unpopular beliefs… right to protest; the right of independent thought.”
McCarthy referred to Smith and the six Senators that had signed her declaration, “Snow White and the Six Dwarves.” He then removed Smith from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the seat was given to Californian Senator Richard Nixon (also the future president) instead. During Smith’s campaign for reelection in 1954, McCarthy also financed her unsuccessful opponent. “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 U.S. Senate when on June 1, 1950, I spoke … in condemnation of McCarthyism, when the junior Senator from Wisconsin had the Senate paralyzed with fear that he would purge any Senator who disagreed with him,” she stated later on. In 1954, Smith was one of the voters for his censure.
For eight years, Smith served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, having been commissioned to this position on July 17, 1950.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower mentioned Smith as a potential vice presidential candidate widely in the election of 1952.
Democrat Lucia Cormier ran against Smith in 1960. Once again, Smith’s reelection campaign was successful. For the first time in history, two women had run against each other for the Senate seat.
Smith announced she would be running for president on January 27, 1964. “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying with the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try,” she stated. While she lost every primary election,she was able to win 25% of the vote in Illinois. Smith was the first woman to have her name placed in the a major political party’s convention’s nomination for presidency at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. In the initial balloting, Smith placed fifth. She also denied Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona’s unanimous consent. Smith also refused to pull her name from the party’s final ballot. In the end, she did campaign for Goldwater in the general election and appeared in an ad for television where she defended Goldwater’s social security position.
While President John F. Kennedy was in office, she argued that the U.S. should use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, leading their leader Nikita Khrushchev to call her “the devil in disguise of a woman.” He also said that her position exceeded “all records of savagery.” In response, Smith said, “Mr. Khrushchev isn’t really mad at me. I am not that important. He is angry because American officials have grown more firm since my speech.”
The day after President Kennedy had been assassinated on November 22, 1963,Smith laid a rose on the desk he had occupied when he was a Senator.
The only woman as of yet to serve as chair of the Senate Republican Conference, was Smith. She served on this position from 1967 to 72. She voted against Supreme Court nominees Clement Haynsworth in 1969, and the following year, G. Harrold Carswell. Smith was a firm supporter of the space program, even serving as a Senate Aeronautical and Space Committee charter member. James E. Webb, the administrator for NASA, once made a comment that if it had not been for Smith, the U.S. never would have placed a man on the moon.Smith also supported civil rights along with medicare and an increase in educational funding. Up until 1981, she also held the Senate all-time voting record, with 9.941 consecutive roll call votes in all.
Bill Hathaway, a Democrat, defeated Smith in the 1972 election. This was the only election she ever lost, and it was her last. Smith had been haunted with rumours of poor health during the election. One of her main Republican challengers gave her taunts of being out of touch as she did not have a state office in Maine. With 47% of the vote, she lost the election by 27,230 votes in all.
Smith taught at many different colleges and universities after leaving the Senate. She was a visiting professor for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Moving back to Skowhegan, she began to oversee the construction of a library intended to hold her papers. President George H.W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 6, 1989.
Margaret Madeline Chase Smith died eight days after suffering through a stroke and falling into a coma on May 29, 1995 in Skowhegan. Smith was ninety-seven years old. After cremation, her ashes were placed in Skowhegan in the residential wing of the Margaret Chase Smith Library.