Maine Republican Made History
'MAINE Republican Made History Twice," was part of one of the headlines noting the recent demise of former United States Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
But that might have understated it. She was the first woman elected to both houses of Congress, and the first woman whose name was placed in nomination for president at the convention of a major political party (the Republicans in 1964).
There were other firsts, though: Although she entered the House of Representatives as successor to her husband, Clyde Smith, a generation older than she, she was the first woman to enter the Senate without first being appointed to the position.
During World War II she became the first civilian woman ever to go to sea in a Navy ship in wartime: This was on the occasion of her traveling to Boston in a destroyer built in Bath, Maine.
Toward the end of the Korean War, she became the first woman to head a major congressional investigation, when she chaired a Senate subcommittee looking into reports of ammunition shortages in war zones.
But she was better known for denouncing, in 1950, the anticommunist witch hunt led by her Republican colleague, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, on the Senate floor.
In a 15-minute speech remembered as her "declaration of conscience," she charged the Democratic administration of the day (Harry Truman's) with having "pitifully failed to provide effective leadership," but went on, "I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny - fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear."
She was pleased to note afterward that it had been said - by Bernard Baruch, as she recalled - that if a man had made the speech, he would have been elected president.
This early blast against McCarthy made Senator Smith the Republican that liberals loved to love. She supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
But she was no cream puff. She was a strong advocate of US military strength and served on defense-related committees; that's how she got onto that destroyer heading for Boston Harbor. She even criticized John Kennedy, a president not generally regarded as deficient in machismo, because she thought he lacked the will to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets.
She entered the Senate nearly half a century ago, and yet until the 1992 elections, there were never more than one or two women in that chamber at the same time.
Long before the Interstate Highway System smoothed the drive, she traveled regularly to Maine on weekends, to keep in touch. Although from modest means and without a college education, she never accepted a campaign contribution, on the grounds that this might leave contributors feeling they were owed something beyond a senator's faithful public service.
She clearly benefited from the New England tradition of face-to-face politics; one wonders how she could have maintained this policy if she had represented a large state like California or Texas. One also wonders what she would have thought of Bob Dole's condemning Hollywood sleaze, even as he says he will keep campaign contributions from media conglomerate Time Warner - just to show he can't be bought, presumably. Olympia Snowe is a Maine Republican in her first term in the Senate after a number of terms in the House; she has remarked that when she is introduced on the Senate floor as "the senator from Maine" she often thinks of Smith, of her courage and integrity.
Was Smith a feminist?
"Women are people, just like anyone else," was her answer to that one. "They should expect office only on the basis of personal qualifications. Of course, some would say that's what a feminist is: someone who thinks women are people, just like anyone else.