On September 13, 1948, Margaret Chase Smith was elected as the first female senator of Maine, which made her the first woman to serve in both the United States House of Representatives and Senate. Chase is the longest serving Republican female senator and only recently lost her position as the longest serving female senator ever to Senator Barbara Mikulski.
Born on December 14, 1897 in Skowhegan, ME, she married Clyde Smith, House Representative of Maine, and took over his position when he died in 1940. She was known for voting with her conscience and crossing party lines. Even though she was a Republican, Smith chose to support Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. She was an advocate for women’s rights, co-sponsoring the Equal Rights Amendment, while also strongly supporting a strong military and worked to improve the status of women serving the country.
During her 1948 run for Senate, Smith’s gender was constantly attacked. People asked, “How is the Senate a place for a woman?” When the wife of one of her opponents questioned why anyone would send a woman to Washington when they could send a man, Smith replied, “Women administer the home. 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.”
For the most part, Chase avoided discussing gender by instead emphasizing her eight-year record in Congress. The strategy worked. She won the general election with 71 percent of the vote.
During her 24-year Senate career, she didn’t just relegate her legislation to “women’s issues.” She was the first senator to speak out against her fellow Republican senator Joseph McCarthy for his reckless “witch hunt” for Communists in her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech. As a key legislator when it came to foreign policy, Chase was also a major supporter of the NASA space program.
Chase retired in 1973, but her legacy continues. Of the 44 women who have ever served in the Senate, 20 now comprise the 115th Congress. When Republican senators Susan Collins, John McCain and Lisa Murkowski recently broke ranks with fellow party members and voted against the “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act, people called it their “Margaret Chase Smith” moment.