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Margaret Chase Smith Library - Expanded Biography

Expanded Biography

Margaret with her parents

Margaret Chase and The Independent Reporter staff

Representative Smith watches President Truman sign Nurse Corps legislation

January 1949
New Senators being sworn into office

Joseph McCarthy and Margaret Chase Smith at Senate Five Percent Hearing

November 1954
Senator Smith meets with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Minister Anthony Eden of Great Britain

Senator Margaret Chase Smith with astronauts Virgil Grissom, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard

Rally for Senator Smith at 1964 Republican National Convention

Margaret Chase Smith at home in Skowhegan, Maine

Entrance to the Margaret Chase Smith Library

July 1989
Senator Smith receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President and Mrs. Bush

Margaret Chase Smith is considered one of America's most outstanding twentieth-century political leaders and one of its greatest stateswomen. Born in Skowhegan, Maine, on December 14, 1897, Margaret Chase was the daughter of Carrie Murray and George Emery Chase. Early in life, she displayed the independence that would later characterize her political career. She briefly taught school, worked as a telephone operator, managed circulation for the Skowhegan newspaper, the Independent Reporter, and served as an employee at a local textile mill. During the 1920s, she became involved with women 's organizations, in particular the Skowhegan Business and Professional Women's Club of which she was a founder. In 1930, she married Clyde H. Smith, a respected political leader in central Maine. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1936 and served until his untimely death in 1940. After conducting four campaigns in five months, Margaret Chase Smith succeeded her husband in representing Maine's Second District.

Early in her legislative career, Congresswoman Smith developed a strong interest in military issues. During World War II, she secured a seat on the House Naval Affairs Committee. She used the position to investigate congestion on the homefront caused by the rapid war build up. More important, she almost single-handedly won permanent status for women in the military.

Following a successful eight years in the House, Margaret Chase Smith beat the odds in 1948 when she soundly defeated the incumbent governor, Horace Hildreth; former governor, Sumner Sewall; and the Reverend Albion Beverage in the Republican primary for the United States Senate. She then went on to win the general election. As a result, she became the first woman in the nation's history to serve in both houses of Congress and the first to be elected to the Senate in her own right.

Two years into her first term, Senator Smith's "Declaration of Conscience" speech delivered on the floor of the Senate on June 1, 1950 brought her national attention. Her opposition to the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist crusade demonstrated to the nation her courage and independence, as well as her devotion to conscience and justice. In her own words, she later observed:

If I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments, but for an act I took as a legislator in the U.S. Senate when on June 1, 1950, I spoke . . . in condemnation of McCarthyism, when the junior Senator from Wisconsin had the Senate paralyzed with fear that he would purge any Senator who disagreed with him.

The Declaration of Conscience marked the beginning of the end for Senator McCarthy. It caused Senator Smith, however, to feel the full brunt of McCarthy's vengeance. He dropped her from a key investigation subcommittee, even though such action ran contrary to Senate tradition. McCarthy also attempted to defeat Senator Smith during her 1954 re-election campaign. Refusing to be influenced by outside interests, the voters of Maine returned Smith to office.

In 1954, at a particularly heightened period of Cold War tensions, Senator Smith organized and personally financed a trip to twenty-three countries in order to become better informed about conditions in the rapidly changing postwar world. During her travels, she met and conferred with leaders such as Churchill, DeGaulle, Adenauer, Franco, Nassar, U Nu, Molotov and Chiang Kai-shek. The interviews and reports she filed for the See It Now program hosted by Edward R. Murrow helped establish Senator Smith as a respected world leader in her own right. The trip was only interrupted by the need for Senator Smith to return to Washington in December of 1954 to vote on the censure of Senator McCarthy.

Despite her early clash with McCarthy, Smith managed to gain appointments to two of the most powerful Senate committees, Armed Services and Appropriations. Among Senator Smith's varied interests was her commitment to medical research. In 1955, she sponsored groundbreaking legislation that committed the federal government to a vast program of support in this field. Senator Smith was also a strong supporter of the space program and served as a charter member of the Senate's Aeronautical and Space Committee.

In 1960, Senator Smith again made history when she defeated her Democratic opponent Lucia Cormier. It marked the first time two women had ever vied for the same Senate seat. After her re-election, she became one of the most vociferous critics of Kennedy Administration defense policies. Her scrutiny of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara exposed holes in policies and again placed her in the national spotlight. Furthermore, it helped set the stage for her 1964 run for the Presidency. John F. Kennedy's assassination only delayed the inevitable. On January 27, 1964, Margaret Chase Smith announced her candidacy for the nation's highest elective office. At the Cow Palace in San Francisco that July, Senator Smith became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the Presidency at a major political party's national convention. In the initial balloting, she placed fifth. Refusing to withdraw her name from the final ballot, she denied Barry Goldwater unanimous consent to prove the point that a woman had ultimately placed second. Nevertheless, she did campaign for Goldwater in the presidential election.

For the remainder of her political career, Senator Smith continued to represent Maine with distinction. She fiercely guarded her independence and tirelessly worked on behalf of Maine's industries and citizens. Her votes against President Nixon's Supreme Court nominees Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell illustrated her commitment to principle and independence. In addition, she played a significant role in Senate deliberations over the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and other arms control efforts during the early 1970s.

Throughout her congressional career, Senator Smith adhered to a two-pronged philosophy that became her political trademark. One of these was her perfect attendance record in Congress. She held an all-time voting record in the United States Senate until 1981 with 2,941 consecutive roll-call votes. The second was the fact that she was scrupulous about spending very little on her campaigns, never accepting campaign contributions. This frugality earned her widespread approval among her constituents and was an important factor in her impressive vote-getting record. Nevertheless, her streak of eight successive terms finally came to an end in 1972, when Senator Smith was narrowly defeated for re-election by Representative William D. Hathaway.

After retiring from political life, Senator Smith launched a second career in education. For more than three years she toured the nation's colleges and universities as a Visiting Professor with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Accompanying her was Major General William C. Lewis, Jr., her longtime Executive Assistant in the Senate. General Lewis had joined her during the 1948 Senate campaign and remained her loyal confidante and aide until his death in 1982. Together they planned for the creation of the Margaret Chase Smith Library that adjoins her Skowhegan home and stands high above the banks of the Kennebec River. During the remaining years of her life, she played an active role in the library's programs. Senator Smith especially enjoyed meeting with visiting school groups.

During the course of her long and distinguished career, Senator Smith was the recipient of ninety-five honorary degrees from educational institutions across the country. In addition, she received numerous awards recognizing her contributions to the nation. The culmination was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, which President George Bush presented her in July of 1989. Following a brief illness, Margaret Chase Smith passed away on May 29, 1995, at the age of 97.

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