One of Maine’s most prominent and beloved citizens was Margaret Chase Smith.
She was born in Skowhegan on December 14, 1897 and passed away May 29, 1995.
In her 97 years she achieved many “firsts”, both as a woman and politician. She was the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives (1940 – 1949) and the Senate (1949 – 1973). She also was the first woman from Maine to be elected to both chambers of Congress.
Adding to her list of firsts, she was first woman to have her name placed in nomination for President of a major political party. This occurred at the Republican convention in 1964. Her colleague Senator Barry Goldwater received the nomination that year.
A serious worker, Senator Smith always maintained her Downeast sense of humor. When asked by a political interviewer what she would do if she woke up one morning in the White House, she said, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.”
Known for her strong character and passionate independent streak, she spoke her mind and would take a courageous stand when she believed she was right. She became a cherished personality in the state as well as a respected legend across the nation. She wore a red rose whenever in public. It became her trade mark, along with her strength of will and firm determination.
As a young woman in Skowhegan Margaret Chase was the “school marm” of a one-room schoolhouse, worked as a telephone operator, newspaper circulation manager and executive with a local textile mill. She became active in local women’s groups and helped start the Skowhegan Business and Professional Women’s Club. She never attended college. She married Clyde Smith, a prominent political leader in central Maine in 1930.
While many regarded Senator Smith as a champion of women’s rights she never thought of herself as a feminist. In a 1975 interview she said, “I was treated fairly in the Senate, not because of equal rights but because of seniority.
When she left office in 1973 she held the record as the longest serving woman Senator in U.S. history.
Her political career began when her husband Clyde Smith was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936. She served as his secretary. When Clyde suffered a fatal heart attack in 1940 Maine voters sent Margaret to Washington to fill out his term. During World War II she served on the House Naval Affairs committee. As co-chair of the committee she helped resolve disputes between the military, state and local jurisdictions where military bases were being constructed across the nation.
Although a staunch Republican, she often voted against her party’s wishes. 1n 1950, at the height of the hysteria brought on by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade, Senator Smith denounced McCarthy’s harsh tactics. In her speech on the Senate floor called the “Declaration of Conscience” she stated, “Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”
These comments brought her national attention. Some speculated that she would become a candidate for Vice-President in the 1952 election. Over the years her strong stands won her many supporting friends as well as severe foes. One of her adversaries was Nikita S. Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union. He called her “the devil in the disguise of a woman.”
In 1972 Senator Smith lost the election to William Hathaway. She returned to her home in Skowhegan and started plans for the Margaret Chase Smith Library at Northwood University. The library opened in 1982 located on fifteen acres overlooking the Kennebec River. Senator Smith was active in its operation for a dozen years. The library houses political documents, photographs, honors and memorabilia that covered her thirty-two years in Congress. It also serves as a museum, educational facility and public policy center to promote research into political history.
Senator Smith considered politics as her only life. “I have no family, no time-consuming hobbies,” she said after many years in the Senate. “I have only myself and my job as United States Senator.”
– March 21, 2008