Smith, Margaret Chase

views updated May 11 2018

Smith, Margaret Chase

(b. 14 December 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine; d. 29 May 1995 in Skowhegan, Maine), Republican congresswoman from Maine, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, and the first woman to seek the nomination of a major political party for the presidency of the United States.

Margaret Madeline Chase was the eldest of six children of George Emery Chase and Caroline Murray Chase. Two brothers died in early childhood, leaving one brother and three sisters. Her father, a barber plagued by migraine headaches, worked sporadically. Her mother waited tables and labored in a shoe factory. When she was old enough, Margaret contributed to the family income by clerking at a variety store and working as a night operator for the telephone company.

Following her graduation from high school in 1916, she briefly taught in a one-room rural school, then took a series of clerical jobs in her hometown, progressively earning more salary and higher status. At the same time, she became deeply involved in women’s clubs, particularly the Federation of Business and Political Women’s Club, where she discovered a community of achievement-oriented young women like herself who were training for public life. She founded the local chapter in 1922, and by 1925 was president of the Maine State Federation. During her tenure, she earned a statewide reputation as smart and competent. In 1926 she also began cultivating her interest in party politics through membership in the Skowhegan Republican Committee, later serving as the organization’s secretary. In 1930 she was elected to the Maine State Republican Committee.

Chase remained unmarried into her thirties, but she had been “keeping company” with a prominent local politician, Clyde Harold Smith, since she was eighteen. Smith was first selectman of Skowhegan, a position comparable to mayor, from 1915 to 1932. He also concurrently held a series of state offices, while managing several local businesses. Smith had hired Chase for a brief assignment (to record the town inventory list) while she was still in high school. Over the next decade and a half, the couple, separated in age by twenty-two years, shared Sunday drives, picnics, and occasional political rallies. Smith, a divorced man, married Margaret Chase on 14 May 1930.

Smith wished to cap his long public career with a run for governor. However, he never realized this goal, largely due to intrastate politics. In 1936 he won election to Congress from Maine’s Second District. Margaret Smith worked as her husband’s campaign manager and secretary and, when his health began to fail shortly after they arrived in Washington, as his liaison to Maine. In April 1940, just days before the filing deadline for reelection to his third term, Clyde Smith suffered a heart attack. Before he died on 8 April, he dictated a press release that urged his constituents to “support the candidate of my choice, my wife and my partner in public life, Margaret Chase Smith.” Despite significant opposition from Maine Republicans, Mrs. Smith, buoyed by the power base they had built together, won his unexpired seat and the next full term that fall.

Representative Smith swiftly established her independence from party orthodoxy by approving President Roosevelt’s defense policies and favoring Social Security and labor measures. After her reelection in 1942, she won appointment to the House Naval Affairs Committee, a key committee in wartime, especially for Maine with its huge shipbuilding industry. As she worked on a variety of military and home-front issues, she represented women in the media, the committee room, and the House floor, articulating the contradictions between women’s new wartime roles and aspirations and traditional attitudes about the status of women. These same circumstances also enhanced Smith’s ability to surmount contradictions of her own, especially the need to remain ladylike while demonstrating that she was tough enough to handle the hard issues. Her expertise in military affairs and consistent advocacy of a strong national defense policy affirmed that reputation and shaped her congressional career.

Many of her efforts during the war were on behalf of military women, securing rank and regular military status for nurses and ultimately for women in all the armed services. Because policy is collectively made, it is often impossible to assess the impact of one member of Congress on the progress of a particular piece of legislation. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 was an exception. Smith relentlessly pressed the issue, resurrecting it over several congresses, and once held out twenty-six to one against the entire Armed Services Committee to force the measure to the floor and eventual passage.

Throughout her years in the House, Smith built a reputation for independence and rectitude. The widespread perception that she did not adhere to party ideology, but considered each issue on its own merits and then voted based on her convictions, made her enormously popular with the voters in Maine, who placed a high value upon individualism and self-reliance.

In 1948 Smith risked her safe seat in the House to run for the U.S. Senate, a first for a woman. She had the able assistance and support of William C. Lewis, Jr., legislative counsel to the Naval Affairs Committee. He managed her successful campaign and afterward signed on as her administrative assistant, a post he held until she left office in 1973. Lewis had the legal education Smith lacked. Her reputation for sagacity owed much to his careful briefings. They were intensely devoted to one another, though neither was willing to risk the political price for marriage, as he was fifteen years her junior. Lewis remained her companion until he died of a heart attack in 1982.

Although Smith’s election to the Senate was greeted with great expectation of imminent political equity for women, she served most of her twenty-four years as the only woman. She continued her work on defense committees, much of it dealing with reserve measures and officer promotions. She seldom made important speeches or took the lead on issues. Instead, she built a reputation for hard work and perfect attendance, moderation and probity, and for attacking extremism on both the political left and right. The most dramatic example of this was her riveting “Declaration of Conscience” speech against the depredations of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950. Although the speech attracted favorable national attention, it did little to restrain McCarthy, who was not censured by his peers until four years later.

Senator Smith, having accumulated substantial seniority and power on major committees and a positive national resume, launched a bid for the Republican nomination for president in 1964. Unable to compete with her millionaire opponents, chiefly Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, she turned self-righteously away from money politics, a strategy that had long worked well for her in Maine. She refused to leave her post in the Senate, campaigning only on weekends, and returned all contributions. Her greatest handicap, though, was her sex, and she found it impossible to overcome the inherent dichotomy between being a lady and being a leader. She defensively insisted that women were people and that she expected people to vote for her record while disregarding her sex. But those around her recognized little else. She ran in New Hampshire and Illinois, then faded to an amusing sideshow. In July, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Smith gathered twenty-seven first-ballot votes, thus becoming the first woman placed in nomination for the presidency of the United States by a major political party.

Smith continued on in the Senate, where seniority had elevated her to the ranking member on two key committees, Armed Services and Appropriations. As the Vietnam War escalated, she never wavered from her firm defense policy, despite increasing entreaties from her constituents. In 1970 she made a second “Declaration of Conscience,” criticizing the extremist tactics of student militants as well as the attempts of the Nixon administration to repress dissent.

To the surprise of many, Smith lost her bid for a fifth term in 1972 to Second District Representative William Hathaway, who charged that she was out of step with her state and too old at seventy-four to continue to serve effectively. After three years as a visiting professor for the Wood-row Wilson Fellowship Foundation, Smith returned to her hometown, where she and Lewis established a research library. She devoted her final years to the Margaret Chase Smith Library, while a sympathetic media gradually transformed her into a symbol of all that was good about a Maine that was rapidly fading away. She died at home on 29 May 1995 following a massive stroke. She was ninety-seven.

Senator Smith was the first to breach several important barriers to higher office for women, serving effectively in a male institution for thirty-three years. Though her effectiveness was largely dependent upon the approval of male colleagues, and that approval was often dependent upon her ability to minimize her gender identity, she carved out a career for herself without violating that precept. Her diminutive size was belied by a strong chin and an iron will. Smith personified a powerful woman of moral courage and integrity. As a consequence, she advanced opportunities for all women who aspire to public office.

The Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine, contains over 300,000 documents, 3,000 photographs, dozens of audio and videotapes, 43 volumes of statements and speeches, and nearly 500 scrapbooks of clippings and personal items. Smith’s memoir, Declaration of Conscience (1972), edited by William C. Lewis, Jr., is a collection of essays and speeches rather than an autobiography. Biographies of Smith include Patricia Ward Wallace, Politics of Conscience: A Biography of Margaret Chase Smith (1995); Patricia L. Schmidt, Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention (1996); and Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith (2000). Earlier biographies by Frank Graham, Jr., Margaret Chase Smith: Woman of Courage (1964), and Alice Fleming, The Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith (1969), deal primarily with her public persona. A detailed survey of Smith’s most significant legislation, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, appears in Janann Sherman, “‘They Either Need These Women or They Do Not’: Margaret Chase Smith and the Fight for Regular Status for Women in the Military,” Journal of Military History 54 (Jan. 1990): 47–78. An obituary of Smith is in the New York Times (30 May 1995).

Janann Sherman

Margaret Chase Smith

views updated May 17 2018

Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) was one of the most politically powerful women in American history. She served over eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the sole woman senator during her 24 years in the Senate. She was the first woman to have been elected to both houses of Congress and in 1964 became the first woman to have been nominated for the presidency of the United States by a major political party.

Margaret Chase Smith was born in Skowhegan, Maine, on December 14, 1897, the eldest of six children born to Carrie and George Chase. Her career began with typical small-town jobs: clerk, telephone operator, various office jobs. She held high offices in business and professional clubs and in Maine's Republican State Committee. She married Clyde Smith, a businessman and politician who won all the 48 offices he sought.

Margaret Smith's election victories are notable. Following the death of her husband, she waged four successful campaigns in seven months to win his Congressional seat in 1940. In 1948 she scored the greatest total vote majority in Maine's history (over 70 percent), defeating three male opponents without party endorsement because leaders feared she could not be elected to the Senate. In 1960 she received the highest percentage total of all Republican senatorial candidates. Campaigning that year for the presidency, Richard Nixon noted that while some might ride into office on "presidential coattails," in Maine he was trying to "hang onto Margaret's skirts." All her campaigns were low-cost and brief since she thought it important to stay on the job until Congress adjourned.

Margaret Chase Smith became known for her highly independent positions. For example, in her first congressional session she supported President Franklin Roosevelt's peacetime Selective Service Act, the arming of U.S. merchant ships, and the Lend-Lease Act. During World War IIshe sometimes supported liberal legislation and voted with Democrats against the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act (but supported the post-war Taft-Hartley Act that limited labor activities). As the only House Republican to oppose cuts in Truman's 1947 budget, the Chicago Tribune editorialized that she should be "read out of the party." While some thought her a "closet Democrat" she insisted she was a moderate Republican who mainly voted with her party except for a few "dramatic" issues.

A careful examiner of committee witnesses, Smith voted to reject nominees of both Republican and Democratic presidents. She voted against Dwight Eisenhower's nominee Lewis L. Strauss for secretary of commerce; Richard Nixon's Supreme Court nominee, G. Harrold Carswell; and John Kennedy's choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John A. McCone. Drawing upon her expertise in military affairs, Smith rejected promotion for popular actor Jimmy Stewart to Air Force (Reserve) brigadier general until certain additional requirements were met.

She was called a "woman of courage" and a "voice of reason," which seems appropriate. Margaret Chase Smith was the first elected official to speak out against Joseph McCarthy's abuse of Senate privilege in fanning cold-war hysteria in her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" speech four years before the Senate censured McCarthy. She also warned colleagues that chronic absenteeism in Congress was eroding public confidence in them. (In 1972 she held the all-time consecutive roll-call voting record, rarely missing a vote.) She then introduced a constitutional amendment that would expel any senator who missed more than 60 percent of the yes-no votes. Previously she had proposed another constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and to provide for direct nomination and election of presidents and vice-presidents. Neither proposal passed.

While never concentrating on legislation for women, her career demonstrated concern for them as well as for men. She was affectionately called "Mother of the WAVES" for introducing legislation to create Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service in World War II. When males objected to non-combat overseas assignments for them on the grounds that women should not have to endure such hardships, she declared: "Then we'd better bring all the nurses home." The measure passed. To those who said that the women's place was in the home, Smith replied that women's place was "everywhere." She never considered herself a feminist, but admitted that she hated to leave the Senate (1972) when there was little indication that a qualified woman was coming in.

Smith also gained an international reputation when, as a member of the Armed Forces Committee, she toured several continents to gain information on the state of America's military forces. She frequently met with high foreign officials and was the first woman to address Iran's legislature (1947).

She made several "patriotic" speeches during the turbulent 1960s and drew verbal fire from Nikita and Nina Khrushchev for challenging President Kennedy to match action with his rhetoric over Soviet interference in Cuba. Smith was easily America's "woman legislator of the century." As a powerful force in the Republican Party for many years, she earned the respect of both Republicans and Democrats for her hard work and level-headed approach to congressional affairs during the administrations of five different presidents. In 1964 she was nominated for president at the Republican convention that eventually chose Barry Goldwater as the GOP candidate.

Campaigning in her usual manner, Smith lost her fifth senatorial race in 1972. Analysts believed her age (74) and Maine's economic problems were primarily responsible. The distinguished senator, holder of 85 honorary degrees and noted for the fresh red rose always worn in her lapel, had served her state and her nation for over 32 years. After congressional retirement she was a Woodrow Wilson visiting professor at various major universities from 1973 to 1976 and served on several important boards of directors.

Smith spent the remaining 19 years of her life in semi-retirement, serving on various boards of directors and giving guest lectures and advice to young people.

Further Reading

Autobiographical information and discussion of various career decisions by Margaret Chase Smith are in her Declaration of Conscience (with William C. Lewis, 1972). Considerable biographical data is in Margaret Chase Smith, Woman of Courage (1964) by Frank Graham, Jr., which concentrates on her while describing the activities of a U.S. senator. For the younger reader Alice Fleming's The Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith (1969) is helpful, as is Fleming's Senator from Maine: Margaret Chase Smith (1976). Also see MacCampbell, James C., Margaret Chase Smith: A Biographical Sketch, (Margaret Chase Smith Library Center, 1982). □

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