Margaret Chase Smith: Paving the Way for Women in Congress
The 2018 mid-term general election is on the horizon, and this year a record number
of women, both Democrat and Republican, are running for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two hundred nominees are vying to increase the number of seats held by women (currently less than 20 percent) in the 435-member House. Let’s take a look at a woman who helped pave the way more than 70 years ago for women today seeking to serve in higher office.
Margaret Chase Smith
of Maine was not the first woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives (Jeannette Rankin), nor was she the first to serve in the U.S. Senate (Rebecca Felton). She was, however, the first woman to serve in both
chambers of Congress. She attained this recognition in 1948 when she was elected to the Senate. More importantly she was the first to be elected to office without being the widow of a former Senator or being appointed to the position first.
Specially elected to the House in 1940 to fill the term of her deceased husband, Margaret Chase Smith was elected to four more terms. She was elected to the Senate in 1948 after defeating her primary opponents with more votes than theirs combined and her general opponent by 42 points. In the Senate she was called "The Lady from Maine" and was known for her bold and determined demeanor.
Chase Smith was a moderate Republican and many times voted independently of her party on issues. She supported New Deal social programs and advocated for a strong military, including improving the status of women service members. She was the first Senator to oppose Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare, though she was supportive of a strong anti-communist foreign policy. Her Declaration of Conscience
speech to the Senate in 1950 attacking McCarthy's tactics and Democratic leadership remains a significant speech in American politics.
In total, Margaret Chase Smith served 33 years in Congress under six presidents. She said of herself, "I was a woman determined to make good, I suppose.... I was determined to keep my word to the people I served. I wouldn't give in once I'd made up my mind. I'd see a thing through."
Margaret Chase Smith is an inspiration to women who aspire to serve their communities, states or country in public office. Perhaps some of your students are inclined to service in government. Here are some other female groundbreaking members of Congress they can look to as role models:
: first woman elected to the House of Representatives, first woman to hold federal office in the United States (1916)
: first woman elected to serve a full term in the Senate (1932)
: first Asian American and ethnic minority elected to the House of Representatives (1964)
: first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives (1968)
: first African American woman from the South elected to the House of Representatives (1972)
: longest-serving woman in the Senate (1987-2017)
In addition to the many excellent resources offered in eLibrary
such as editor-curated Research Topics, the House of Representatives Office of Art & Archives offers the Women in Congress
exhibition. This website showcases former and current women Representatives and Senators and the events that laid the groundwork for subsequent generations. Another resource for teachers and students is the Teach a Girl to Lead
initiative from the Center for American Women in Politics. Its mission is to encourage girls in leadership and civic engagement while highlighting women in public leadership positions.
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