AUGUSTA, Maine — Fifty years ago this week, in 1964, a female senator from Maine made history.
It wasn’t the first time, either. Margaret Chase Smith, a Skowhegan Republican, was used to blazing trails. In 1948, she became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate without having first been appointed to fill out a departing senator’s unexpired term. A former U.S. representative, Smith was also the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress.
Then, in 1950, she further ensured her place in the history books when she gave a speech titled “The Declaration of Conscience,” condemning the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Commission and the heavy-handed tactics of anti-communist Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In fact, Smith may not have known she was making history again on Jan. 27, 1964, when she announced her candidacy for president. After all, women had run for the highest elected office before, although they had come from smaller, regional parties than Smith’s GOP.
“I’d like to be president,” Smith told Time magazine. “I think my experience and my record are greater than any other candidate or any other of the unannounced candidates. It’s a real challenge, and that’s one of the paramount things. When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.”
On Monday, Sen. Susan Collins, another Republican woman who since 1997 has occupied the same Senate seat Smith held, gave remarks on the floor of the Senate, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Smith’s presidential campaign.
Collins met Smith in 1971, when she was a senior at Caribou High School enrolled in the U.S. Senate Youth Program.
She spoke about how Smith received letters urging her to run for office from supporters who championed her independence, her experience and her chance to break down a major political barrier for women. Smith was also candid about the reasons she shouldn’t run — her lack of political organization and the odds stacked heavily against her candidacy.
“Sen. Smith said she found the reasons offered against running far more compelling than those in favor” Collins said. “So imagine the audience’s surprise when she said that, because of those reasons, she had decided to enter the New Hampshire primary.”
Smith never won a single state primary. But six months later, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, she became the first woman to have her name placed into nomination by a major political party. She placed fifth, but refused to be removed from the ballot, thus denying eventual candidate Barry Goldwater unanimous consent.
Said Collins: “On this milestone of the anniversary, I am honored to celebrate an extraordinary Maine woman who tried and failed in one endeavor but, in so doing, inspired generations of Americans with her strength and determination, and demonstrated, as she once said, that a woman’s place is ‘everywhere.’”
Smith went on to campaign for Goldwater, who lost to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson by a landslide in the 1964 general election. She continued to serve in the Senate until 1972, then moved back to Skowhegan and taught at various colleges and universities. She died in 1995.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.