A Pioneer Woman in the U.S. Senate

As a record number of women entered the U.S. Congress this year and women participate in Congressional leadership positions in unprecedented ways, I thought it would be a good time to repost our short biography of one of the pioneers, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Efforts are also currently underway to increase the number of Republican women in Congress. Check out gopwomenforprogress.org. and their upcoming workshop on political campaigning with the Women’s Campaign School at Yale.

margaret chases smith

Margaret Madeline Chase Smith (December 14, 1897 – May 29, 1995) was a member of the Republican Party and served as a U.S Representative (1940-1949) and a U.S. Senator (1949-1973) from Maine. She was the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress.

Smith is best remembered for her 1950 speech, “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she criticized the tactics of McCarthyism.

Smith earned a reputation as a moderate Republican who often broke ranks with her party. For example, she supported much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Congresswoman Smith was also a strong supporter of women in the armed services. Smith was sworn into the Senate on January 3, 1949. After less than a year in office, she gained national attention when she became the first member of Congress to condemn the anti-Communist witch hunt led by her fellow Republican Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

In a well-publicized speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, four months earlier, McCarthy claimed to possess the names of 205 card-carrying Communists in the State Department. Smith, like many of her colleagues, shared McCarthy’s concerns about Communist subversion, but she grew skeptical when McCarthy repeatedly ignored her requests for evidence to back up his accusations.

On June 1, 1950, Smith delivered a fifteen-minute speech on the Senate floor, known as the “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she refused to name McCarthy directly (bowing to Senate rules on comity) but denounced “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.” She said McCarthyism had “debased” the Senate to “the level of a forum of hate and character assassination.” While acknowledging her desire for Republicans’ political success, Smith said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.” Six other moderate Senate Republicans signed onto her Declaration, including Wayne Morse of Oregon, George Aiken of Vermont, Edward Thye of Minnesota, Irving Ives of New York, Charles Tobey of New Hampshire, and Robert C. Hendrickson of New Jersey.

Smith’s speech triggered a public explosion of support and criticism. “This cool breeze of honesty from Maine can blow the whole miasma out of the nation’s soul,” stated the Hartford Courant. “By one act of political courage, [Smith has] justified a lifetime in politics,” commented another. Newsweek magazine ran a cover story entitled “Senator Smith: A Woman Vice President?” But critics called her “Moscow-loving,” and much worse. McCarthy dismissed her and her supporters as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”

In the 1952 election, Smith was widely mentioned as a Vice-Presidential candidate to run with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. When asked by a reporter what she would do if she woke up one morning and found herself in the White House, she replied: “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.”

Smith was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1964 presidential election.
Nonetheless she was the first woman to be placed in nomination for the United States Presidency at a major Party’s convention. Upon leaving office, she was the longest-serving female Senator in history.

Smith was the first (and as yet only) woman to serve as chair of the Senate Republican Conference, serving from 1967 to 1972. She voted against President Nixon’s unsuccessful nominees to the Supreme Court, Clement Haynsworth in 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in 1970.

Smith was a strong supporter of the space program. NASA administrator James E. Webb once commented that the United States never would have placed a man on the Moon if it were not for Smith. She also supported increased educational funding, civil rights, and Medicare.

Recently retired Republican Maine Senator Olympia Snowe was asked what Senator Smith would think of today’s Republican Party. Snowe responded, “Oh my gosh! She’d be appalled. I don’t think she could conceive of how it’s all evolved today. Even in my own experience, it’s hard to comprehend.”

Listen to Senator Susan Collins’s tribute to Senator Smith to learn more about her life here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QHLlYUgEgo

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