Born in Skowhegan, Maine, on December 14, 1897, Margaret Chase grew to be a talented young woman. She taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, worked as a telephone operator, and served as circulation manager for the Skowhegan newspaper, the Independent Reporter. She was an office worker in a local textile mill. She helped to found the Skowhegan Business and Professional Women’s Club. As a student at Colby College, she was a member of the founding chapter of Sigma Kappa Sorority.
Her political career began when she married Clyde Smith, a respected Maine politician and key supporter of the New Deal, and served as his administrative assistant. When her husband died following a heart attack in 1940, she was elected to fill his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During World War II, she served on the House Naval Affairs Committee, where she was instrumental in establishing military bases across the nation.
Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and the Senate. In 1964, she became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the U.S. Presidency at a major party’s convention. Perhaps her most famous speech was the “Declaration of Conscience” speech, delivered on June 1, 1950. In it, she criticized the tactics used by the House Un-American Activities Committee and, by inference, Senator Joe McCarthy. She outlined four “basic principles of Americanism”:
- The right to criticize;
- The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
- The right to protest; and
- The right of independent thought.
Smith was concerned that those who exercised those beliefs at that time were being labeled “communist” or “fascist.”
“…The Democratic administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people by its complacency to the threat of communism and the leak of vital secrets to Russia through key officials of the Democratic administration. There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.
Surely these are sufficient reasons to make it clear to the American people that it is time for a change and that a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country. Surely it is clear that this nation will continue to suffer as long as it is governed by the present ineffective Democratic Administration.
Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.
I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest”.
Only four years later did the political tides turn, leading to the censure of Senator McCarthy.
Margaret Chase Smith, a forerunner of contemporary women in politics, drew inspiration and comfort from her faith in God. In a speech delivered in the 1950s on finding security in fundamental freedoms, she explained how her faith was a solace in her life:
And this I do believe above all, especially in my times of greater discouragement, that I must believe—that I must believe in my fellow men, that I must believe in myself, that I must believe in God—if life is to have any meaning.