Margaret Chase Smith: Breaking the Barrier

Today’s post comes from Dena Lombardo, an intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications.

Seventy years ago, Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist campaign. 

Senator Margaret Chase Smith, ca. 1954 (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)

Her 15-minute speech on the Senate floor denounced the members who were turning the Senate into “a forum of hate and character assassination.” She called for a renewal of “the right to independent thought” and went on to say that “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America . . . it has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

She implored her Republican colleagues not to ride to political victory on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny–Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” and concluded with a five-point “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she was joined by six other senators.

Congresswomen of the 89th Congress: (standing, from left) Florence Dwyer of New Jersey, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Edith Green of Oregon, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, Julia Hansen of Washington, Catherine May of Washington, Edna Kelly of New York, and Charlotte Reid of Illinois (seated, from left) Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, Frances Bolton of Ohio, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, ca. 1965-67. (National Archives Identifier 541939) 

Smith was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. One week after her husband, Representative from Maine Clyde Smith, died in 1940, Margaret Chase Smith was elected to fill his vacancy, thus beginning her fight to be more than just a placeholder. She successfully fought off four male rivals for the primary nomination to keep her seat and went on to serve four terms in the House of Representatives. 

Smith moved to the Senate in 1949, making her the only woman in the Senate at the time. It wasn’t until a decade later than another woman was elected to the Senate to serve a full term. 

Smith ran for President in 1964, stating she would not miss any time in the Senate, nor would she accept any donations. Her campaign was staffed by volunteers, and she did not run any television or radio ads. 

Universal Newsreel showing Senator Smith announcing her run for President at the Women’s National Press Club on January 27, 1964. (National Archives Identifier 2050716)

Her run for the Presidency was more symbolic than tactical. However, Smith went on to win nearly 30 percent of the vote in Illinois, a state she actively campaigned in, and votes in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas, where she had no campaign appearances. 

In July at the Republican national convention, Smith became the first woman to have her name placed onto a nomination of a major party. She received the votes of 26 delegates. In running for President, Smith asserted she wanted the role to break the barrier against women being taken as serious candidates for the Presidency. 

Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964, then lost the Presidency to Democratic candidate Lyndon B. Johnson. Smith continued to serve in the Senate until she lost the 1972 election. In total, she had served over 32 years in Congress. 

Learn more about woman activists on the National Archives website.

5 thoughts on “Margaret Chase Smith: Breaking the Barrier

  1. I had the honor of visiting Mrs. Chase Smith’s library in Skowhegan, Maine, on a school field trip when I was in high school, not long after she passed away. I remember, even then, of being aware of how remarkable a woman she must have been–a woman far ahead of her time. Thank you for highlighting her story.

  2. “The day Richard Nixon failed to answer that subpoena is the day he was subject to impeachment because he took the power from Congress over the impeachment process… and he became the judge and jury.” — Lindsey Graham, 1998

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