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First Woman Elected to Both Houses of Congress

September 13, 1948

Margaret Chase Smith

Is the Senate any place for a woman? This question dominated the 1948 Senate primary in the state of Maine. Seeking the Republican nomination were the current governor, a former governor, and a four-term House member named Margaret Chase Smith.

“The little lady…is simply over-reaching herself,” commented one reporter. She “has stepped out of her class,” wrote another. Throughout the campaign, Smith faced a deeply ingrained prejudice against women holding elective office. As the wife of one of her opponents said, “Why [send] a woman to Washington when you can get a man?”

Smith took advantage of such criticism. She compared management of public affairs with management of a household. “Women administer the home,” she explained. “They set the rules, enforce them, and 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.”

Most of the time, however, Smith avoided gender issues. “I want it distinctly understood,” she emphasized, “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.” The voters were impressed. In the June primary, Smith gained twice as many votes as all of her challengers combined. In the general election, held on September 13, 1948, she squashed her Democratic opponent with 71 percent of the vote. In January 1949, Margaret Chase Smith launched a successful 24-year Senate career, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.

Not content to be limited to “female issues,” she proved that women could participate in all areas of national policymaking. She became an outspoken legislator on matters of foreign policy, military affairs, and the arms race, and was a staunch supporter of the space program. “If it were not for [Margaret Chase Smith],” commented one official at NASA, “we would never have placed a man on the moon.” In both the House and the Senate, she pioneered efforts to provide equal status for women in the military.

There were many milestones in her long career. One such event took place on June 1, 1950—just four months after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s meteoric rise to fame. Smith delivered what she considered the most important speech of her career, her "Declaration of Conscience.” Angered by McCarthy’s ferocious and unsubstantiated attacks, Smith became one of the first senators to take the Senate floor and publicly denounce what became known as “McCarthyism.” Over the next four years, until the Senate finally censured McCarthy, Smith was a leader in questioning the goals and methods of the junior senator from Wisconsin.

Smith served 24 years in the Senate and helped to break down barriers to women serving in political office. She retired in 1973 after losing her final bid for reelection. In retirement, she established the Margaret Chase Smith Library and continued to serve as an important role model until her death at age 97. She left behind an impressive legacy for women in all professions. When thinking of Margaret Chase Smith, Senator William Cohen once remarked, we are reminded of the old Chinese proverb: “When drinking the water, don’t forget who dug the well.”