November 8, 1960
“Smith vs. Cormier, 1960.” It sounds like a prize fight between two heavy-weight boxing champions. Actually, it was a historic election between two contenders for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In one corner—the defending champion, Republican Margaret Chase Smith, popular senior senator from Maine. In the opposite corner—Democratic contender Lucia Cormier. For the first time in Senate history, both major party candidates were women.
Elected in 1948, Margaret Chase Smith had coasted to reelection in 1954 and now sought a third term. Political observers predicted another easy victory. They didn’t know the Democrats were planning a surprise. Maine’s junior senator, Edmund Muskie (who had a very testy relationship with Smith), had carefully chosen the opposing candidate—Democratic state representative Lucia Cormier. The only way to beat Margaret Chase Smith, Muskie argued, was with another woman.
The Democrats’ choice presented Smith with an interesting challenge. “I was so successful in overcoming the campaign argument that ‘the Senate is no place for a woman,’” Smith confessed, “that I must have overdone it.” Unlike Smith, Cormier was not nationally known, but she was a familiar face in Maine. A successful businesswoman and veteran state representative, Cormier became Democratic floor leader in Maine’s state house of representatives in 1959. According to the Bangor News, she was the “most efficient, most sincere, and hardest-working” woman ever to grace the legislative scene.
The historic contest gained national attention in February of 1960, when Senator Muskie personally launched Cormier’s campaign. He escorted the Democratic candidate to the Senate Chamber, introduced her as “the next senator from Maine,” and urged her to take a seat at one of the historic desks. Clearly, Smith complained, this was a breach of Senate etiquette. A media ruckus followed.
Despite the accomplishments of both women, news reporters frequently derided their qualifications. It was a contest of “Widow v. Spinster,” declared the Los Angeles Times. Time magazine described Cormier as a “stocky . . . old maid” school teacher, while pundits portrayed Smith as a cranky shrew and predicted scenes of “hair-pulling” and “eye-scratching.” We expect to see “a dramatic clashing of will and words,” wrote a reporter for the Washington Post, “a real fur-flying political cat fight,” since the Democrats have “nominated a scrappy ex-school teacher . . . to topple [the Senate’s] snowy-maned, frosty-mannered Republican ‘queen bee.’”
Ignored by the press was the fact that Smith and Cormier had known each other for years, had worked together in the Federation of Business and Professional Women, and were determined to run serious campaigns. Smith remained mostly quiet to avoid any controversy that might give her challenger visibility. “Don’t trade a record for a promise,” she told voters. Two days before the November 8 election, the women faced off in a state-wide televised debate. Commentators urged Cormier to “slug it out” with Smith, but both candidates remained above the fray. They were “ladylike,” Smith recalled, but not “powder puff.”
Smith won the so-called “Petticoat Race.” She took 62 percent of the vote, the highest winning percentage of any Senate Republican that year. Consequently, in January of 1961, following this historic, high-profile match-up, the defending champion returned to the Senate stronger than ever.