Margaret Chase Smith Biography

(1897–1995)
Margaret Chase Smith is best known for her independent American political career.

Synopsis

Margaret Smith Chase was born December 14, 1897 in Skowhegan, Maine. Smith was married to Clyde Smith, House Representative of Maine, but assumed his position after unexpected death in 1940. Though nominally a member of the Republican Party, Smith was known for voting her conscience, not party line. She was an outspoken critic of Senator McCarthy and President Nixon's judicial nominees. Smith served Maine as both Representative and Senator.

Early Life

Politician, U.S. congresswoman, presidential candidate, author. Born Margaret Madeline Chase on December 14, 1897, in Skowhegan, Maine. The wife of U.S. representative Clyde Smith, Margaret Chase Smith became an important political force in her own right in the twentieth century. After graduating from high school in 1916, she worked as a teacher in her hometown’s one-room schoolhouse.

Her career in education was short-lived, however. After a stint as a telephone operator, Smith joined the staff of the local newspaper, the Independent Reporter, in 1919. She was active in the community, forming the local chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1922.

Marraige to Clyde Smith

Leaving the newspaper in 1927, Smith worked as a manager at a wool mill for a time before her marriage to Clyde Smith in 1930. There was a notable age difference between the two—she was thirty-two and he was fifty-five at the time. Clyde Smith was a businessman and the owner of the Independent Reporter newspaper. In addition to his business interests, he had political ambitions. Together, Margaret and Clyde Smith were strong supporters of the Republican Party.

For several years after her marriage, Margaret Smith served on the Republican State Committee. She left her post to help her husband with his 1936 run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Once he was elected, Smith became his secretary. She handled everything from mundane tasks, such as filing, to helping him prepare his speeches. Unfortunately, her husband died of a heart attack in April 1940. Margaret Smith assumed his position in the House shortly after his passing and held on to the post after winning in a special election that June.

Congresswoman Smith

During her eight years in the House of Representatives, Smith voted guided by her conscience rather than just following the party line. She supported the Selective Service Act of 1940 and voted against the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act, which she believed would hurt her constituents in Maine’s shipyards. Smith also bridged party lines to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. A career-long believer in a strong military, she toured U.S. bases in the South Pacific as a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee. An advocate for women’s rights, she cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment with Congresswoman Winifred Stanley in the mid-1940s. Smith also worked on improving the status of women in the military.

In 1948, Smith successfully won her bid to become a senator. She served on several committees during her time in the Senate, including Rules Committee, Appropriations Committee, and the Government Operations Committee. While she herself was against communism, Smith spoke out in opposition of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s very intense persecution of nearly anyone suspected to have communist links.

McCarthy claimed to be on a crusade uproot the members of the government as well as others in public life who were communists. Special hearings were held with few results except perhaps for dragging people’s names and reputations through the mud. In 1950, Smith spoke out about the notorious senator in 1950, delivering a speech called the “Declaration of Conscience.”

Smith said in part, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism—The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know some one who holds unpopular beliefs.”

Re-election

Known as the “Lady from Maine,” Smith was a skilled diplomat as well as a talented legislator. In the mid-1950s, she traveled the world, visiting with the leaders of twenty-three nations. Smith also hosted a visit to Maine by President Dwight D. Eisenhower around this time. On the television program, Face the Nation, Smith debated well-known liberal and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1960, Smith fended off a challenge for her seat from Lucia Cormier. The landmark election was the first to consist of two women competing against each other for a Senate seat. Four years later, Smith sought the highest office in the country. She tried to become the Republican presidential nominee for president, but eventually lost out to fellow senator Barry Goldwater.

Re-elected to the Senate in 1966, Smith continued to vote based on her own beliefs, not party politics. She opposed President Richard Nixon’s two nominations for the U.S. Supreme Court—Clement Haynsworth in 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. In 1972, Smith lost her bid for re-election and was replaced in the Senate by Democrat William D. Hathaway.

Later Years

After leaving office in 1973, Smith was a visiting professor for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for several years. She also helped establish the Margaret Chase Smith Library in her hometown of Skowhegan where she spent her final years. During her remarkable career, Smith received more than 90 honorary degrees and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989 from President George Bush.

Smith died in Skowhegan on May 29, 1995, from complications from a stroke she suffered several days earlier.

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