By Richard A. Baker
In a 1948 election contest to fill a US Senate seat, the wife of one of the candidates took a dim view of her husband’s opponent, Representative Margaret Chase Smith. Why, she wondered publicly, would the voters of Maine want to send “a woman to Washington when you can get a man?”
Well, indeed, the voters of one of Maine’s three congressional districts had already taken a chance on a woman, electing Margaret Smith on five occasions since the death in 1940 of her husband, Representative Clyde Smith, whose dutiful secretary she had once been. During her more than eight years in the House, Mrs. Smith—who never missed an opportunity to associate herself with the 1939 film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—initially built a record as an independent outsider, mirroring the Hollywood image of Jimmy Stewart’s “Senator Jefferson Smith.”
In 1948 the women of Maine, who constituted nearly two-thirds of that state’s registered voters, appreciated Smith’s efforts during World War II to bring equal status to women in the armed services. Some among them were particularly offended by her opponents’ questioning of women’s ability to hold public office.
With the campaign slogan, “Don’t trade a record for a promise,” Smith overwhelmingly won both the June Republican primary and the general election–at that time held in September. In that latter election, she benefitted from the cluelessness of her opponent, a dermatologist who argued that in a sick world, what the nation most needed were more physicians in government.
The first woman elected to both houses of Congress and the first woman to reach the Senate without previously having been appointed to an unexpired term, Mrs. Smith was the most nationally prominent Republican in her Senate freshmen class. Among her classmates were high-profile Democrats Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
It was customary for new senators of her day to remain quietly in the shadows. Not Senator Smith! In office less than a year-and-a-half, she delivered a blistering 15-minute floor speech against the anti-Communist demagoguery of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy responded predictably with a sneering reference to Smith and the co-signers of her “Declaration of Conscience” as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”
Margaret Smith’s power in the Senate grew out of her independence—no party leader could take her vote for granted; her diligence—she made every roll-call vote for nearly twenty years until hip surgery broke that remarkable streak; her boundless energy; and her eventual seniority on the chamber’s influential committees on Appropriations and Armed Services. She dismissed efforts to brand her as a pioneering feminist. “I was treated fairly in the Senate not because of equal rights but because of seniority.”
From her Armed Services Committee perch, Smith adopted a hawkish approach to US military policy, supporting the war in Vietnam and criticizing the United States for not keeping ahead of the Soviet Union in stockpiling nuclear weapons. That stance provoked Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to denounce her as “the devil in disguise of a woman.”
“Maggie” (a commonly used reference that she disliked) Smith’s path-breaking Senate career ended in 1972 with her defeat by Democrat William Hathaway. His campaign played on her apparent physical frailty, noting that she used a motor scooter to shuttle between her Senate office building suite and the Capitol (she would live for another 23 years), and charges of her remoteness from her constituents. Her retirement left the Senate an all-male bastion for the next five years.
Twenty years after Smith’s departure, the 1992 Senate elections witnessed a major national backlash against the traditionally male Senate. The result was the so-called Year of the Woman. This came in no small degree because of the shabby treatment the men of the Senate Judiciary Committee accorded to Anita Hill, who testified at its hearings in opposition to the US Supreme Court appointment of Clarence Thomas. As a result of that pivotal election, by mid-1993 seven women sat in the Senate. Today, that number stands at 20, including 16 Democrats and 4 Republicans. Currently, in California, New Hampshire, and Washington State, both senators are women, a status held by Smith’s Maine from 1997 until 2013.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Margaret Chase Smith’s 1948 Senate election is that these 20 women are no longer viewed with the condescending curiosity that greeted the Mrs. Smith who went to Washington 65 years ago. Today, they are not primarily “women” senators; they are just senators.
The Margaret Chase Library in her hometown of Skowhegan, Maine, now serves as a robust research facility for those who wish learn more about her life, her times, and a US Senate largely unrecognizable to her modern successors.
Richard A. Baker, Historian Emeritus of the US Senate, is coauthor of The American Senate: An Insider’s History.