Margaret Chase Smith; Congressional Trailblazer

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarred Martinez
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In honor of Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States, let us look back on the life of Margaret Chase Smith, a woman of many firsts and a key figure in increasing women’s roles in the military.

Margaret Chase was born on Dec. 14, 1987 in Skowhegan, Maine. After graduating high school in 1916, she worked many jobs, including teaching, phone operator, and office manager. She married a local Maine politician, Clyde Smith, in 1930. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1936, representing the 2nd District of Maine. During his tenure in Congress, Margaret managed his Washington offices and actively participated in Maine Republican Party activities. In 1940, Representative Clyde Smith was running for re-election but was suffering ill health. He urged Margaret to run in his place, as he was not capable of running. As a result, Margaret agreed to run for her husband's seat in Congress. Clyde Smith passed away on Apr. 8, 1940, and Margaret Chase Smith won the special election to replace her husband. Now Congresswoman Smith then won the general election that same year with 65% of the vote. She was not the first woman to sit in the House of Representatives, but she would blaze a trail of her own and serve a long and unique thirty-two years in government.

During her tenure in the House of Representatives, she would serve in key committee positions, including the Naval Affairs Committee and eventually the Armed Services Committee. During this time, Congresswoman Smith played a role in the passage of the Women's Armed Forces Integration Act. During World War II, women had served in the military as reserve volunteers and had no access to the regular benefits of military service. The Women's Armed Forces Integration Act would grant women full status in the armed forces, and Congresswoman Smith would introduce it to the House. The bill passed the Senate, but the House Armed Services Committee amended it only to offer women reserve status. Congresswoman Smith was the single dissenting voice on the Armed Services Committee, and she petitioned the Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, to add his voice to her dissenting opinion. With the backing of the DoD, she successfully convinced the House to change the bill back, adding women as a permanent part of the military, although only serving in non-combat and limited roles. Even with these limitations, this was an essential step in the full integration of women in the military, and Congresswoman Smith was a key part of its passage.

Congresswoman Smith served eight years in the House of Representatives before she ran for election to the Senate. Winning the Maine Republican nomination by a wide margin, she won 71% of the vote. Now Senator Smith was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. While she was elected to the House utilizing her husband's nomination to run in his place, a technique that every woman in the Senate had used so far to gain a Senate seat, this time she was elected in her own right. She used her voting record in the House of Representatives to gain credibility among her voters. Senator Smith sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Committee, positions never held by a woman before her.

It was here that Senator Smith would make waves. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Iowa alleged to possess an extensive list of federal government employees who were members of the Communist Party. During this time, fears of Communist infiltration of the government were pervasive. As a result, Senator McCarthy, and other members of government who supported him, would target anyone who expressed criticism, usually without evidence.

When Senator McCarthy failed to back up his list of names with concrete evidence of espionage, Senator Smith stood on the Senate floor and spoke out against his tactics, the first to do so in the Senate. In her "Declaration of Conscience," co-signed by five other fellow Republicans, she condemned the actions and tactics of McCarthy and her party. In the speech, she stated, "It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques -- techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life." Senator Smith was ridiculed by McCarthy, while the rest of the Senate mainly remained silent. However, years later, she would be among the majority of Senators to formally condemn Senator McCarthy, ending his credibility in the Senate.

Among her other firsts, Senator Smith was the first woman to be presented for nomination for the Presidency by a major political party, only to be beaten by Barry Goldwater. In 1971, while she was considering retirement, there were discussions of her being too old to continue her career. Hearing this, Margaret Chase Smith ran nevertheless. Unfortunately, she was voted out of office, 53% to 47%. She would later be awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush and have a library named after her. On May 29, 1995, she passed away in her hometown of Skowhegan, Maine.

Margaret Chase Smith was a decorated government member, a woman of many firsts, and a historical figure worthy of remembrance.