Reading about the life of Margaret Chase Smith is like reading a short history of America in the 20th Century. Born December 14, 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine, Margaret Chase worked briefly worked as a teacher, telephone operator and newspaper circulation manager. She became involved with women’s organizations, including The Junior League, in the 1920s, and married Clyde H. Smith in 1930.
When Clyde, an aspiring politician, was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1936, Margaret went along with him – as his secretary. But when Clyde died four years later, Margaret succeeded him and, after winning four terms in the House, won election to the United States Senate. In so doing, she became the first woman elected to both houses of Congress.
But Margaret Chase Smith’s story is more than a first-woman-to… story.
While still in the House, during World War II, she introduced legislation granting permanent status for women in the armed forces and co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment.
After delivering her now-famous Declaration of Conscience speech denouncing the tactics used by her Republican colleague Joseph McCarthy in his anticommunist crusade, some pundits speculated that she might find a place on the 1952 Republican ticket with Dwight Eisenhower (she didn’t – Richard Nixon did).
In the mid-1950s, she met with the heads of state of 23 nations during a world tour.
In 1964, she ran in several Republican presidential primaries and took her candidacy all the way to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, becoming the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party. She came in second to the Senator Barry Goldwater, who went on to lose to Lyndon Johnson.
Later, she went against her own party in casting a crucial vote against President Nixon’s nomination of Clement F. Haynsworth for the Supreme Court.
In 1970, she went on to deliver a Second Declaration of Conscience speech in reaction to campus disruptions and antiwar protests.
And upon losing re-election in 1972 – after four terms in the Senate and thirty-two years in Congress – she retired to her home in Skowhegan and began planning for the establishment of the Margaret Chase Smith Library, which opened in 1982.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush, she died at the age of 97 on May 29, 1995.
Says Delly Beekman, President of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., “Margaret Chase Smith was not simply a woman or a politician. She believed strongly in what was right, and put her words into action. The result is a model of a Junior Leaguer who, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Child and other notable former League members, fulfilled Mary Harriman’s legacy of Junior League volunteers making a lasting community impact.”