After brief campaign, Margaret Chase Smith added to list of influential American women

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 2:12 p.m.
In this 1950 photo, Margaret Chase Smith sits in her Skowheagan study drafting the &quotDeclaration on Conscience."
Photo courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library
In this 1950 photo, Margaret Chase Smith sits in her Skowheagan study drafting the "Declaration on Conscience."

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — A Facebook campaign to get Margaret Chase Smith included on a list of influential American women proved successful this week when the pioneering politician was given her due.

David Richards, interim director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, was disappointed when he learned recently that she had been left off a list of 48 American women that included Martha Washington, mental health reformer Dorothea Dix and Julia Child.

“Margaret needs your help,” he wrote this week in a Facebook post that urged the longtime U.S. senator’s many fans to suggest her name be added to the list.

Richards said that it has been growing harder to keep Smith’s legacy alive nearly 17 years after her death.

“The passage of time and erosion of memory is why she can get left off a list of most influential women in U.S. History,” he wrote in an email to the BDN.

A Maine teacher had alerted Richards to the list.

“She found it hard to believe that Julia Child was more important than Margaret Chase Smith,” he said.

But fears that the woman who denounced Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech in 1950 has become marginalized by history proved unfounded.

Robert Maloy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the webmaster for the resourcesforhistoryteachers website. He said that the webpage was developed five years ago to be a resource for aspiring teachers to study for the teacher test in Massachusetts, but it has since grown into a more broadly used history resource that gets 1,500 to 2,000 visitors a day. It is a wiki, meaning that users are able to edit the content of the site.

“We’d love to add Margaret Chase Smith. That’s a great idea,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I think it’s important to find pioneers — people who stepped up to the trends and assumptions of their time for greater freedom, greater equality and greater fairness. That’s certainly what I know about Margaret Chase Smith’s career and life. She should be in our wiki.”

By Friday morning Smith had become the 49th entry on the list.

Smith was born in Skowhegan in 1897 to a family without much money. She first held political office in 1940 when her husband, U.S. Rep. Clyde Smith, died and she took his seat. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first woman to be elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate in 1948. She represented Maine until 1972, when she was defeated, Richards said.

He said that when other politicians and citizens remained silent during the beginning of McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, Smith spoke out.

“That’s the most famous thing she did in Congress,” he said.

In her speech, Smith called for politicians and others to stop ignoring some of the “principles of Americanism.”

Those included “the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought,” she said. “The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood.”

On Thursday, Sen. Olympia Snowe called it a landmark speech.

“One of the enduring legacies of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was proving that gender was not the key factor in public service, but that dedication and energy, competence and ability, and sheer guts were,” Snowe said in a statement. “Sen. Smith accomplished in fifteen minutes what 94 of her male colleagues did not dare to do by confronting and ultimately slaying that giant of demagoguery, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Sen. Susan Collins said that Smith, whom she met while a senior at Caribou High School, is one of her role models for public service.

“Sen. Smith was an extraordinary American and an outstanding United States Senator,” Collins said in a statement. “It is inconceivable that she would not be included in any list of the most influential women in American history.”

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