Is the Senate any place for a woman? This question dominated the 1948 U.S. Senate Republican primary in the state of Maine. Contesting for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Wallace White were the current governor, a former governor, and a four-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Margaret Chase Smith.
Unlike her wealthy opponents, who enjoyed strong statewide political connections, Margaret Chase Smith initially had neither adequate funding nor name recognition among the two-thirds of Maine's population living outside her congressional district. She also faced deeply ingrained prejudice against women serving in elective office. As the wife of one of her opponents put it, “Why [send] a woman to Washington when you can get a man?”
While a member of the House, Smith had built a record of left-leaning independence that irritated her party’s more conservative leaders. Seemingly hopeless at its beginning, her primary campaign made a virtue of her independence and her pioneering efforts to provide equal status for women in the military during World War II. Eventually, she gained extensive national media coverage, attracting the admiring attention of prominent journalists, including widely read women writers such as May Craig and Doris Fleeson.
By no means a feminist, Smith said, “I want it distinctly understood that I am not soliciting support because I am a woman. I solicit your support wholly on the basis of my eight years in Congress.” She compared management of public affairs with management of a household. “Women administer the home,” she explained. “They set the rules, enforce them, mete out justice for violations. Thus, like Congress, they legislate; like the Executive, they administer; like the courts, they interpret the rules. It is an ideal experience for politics.”
In the June 1948 primary, Smith polled twice as many votes as all of her challengers combined. Her opponents’ attacks against the capacity of women to hold public office, in a state where two-thirds of the registered voters were women, proved unwise.
In the general election, held in mid-September, she overwhelmed her Democratic opponent—a dermatologist who argued that since it was a sick world, the nation needed doctors in government.
In winning the September 13, 1948, election, Margaret Chase Smith launched a successful 24-year Senate career, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
(Photo: Senate Historical Office)