Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith didn’t win the Republican Party nomination for president in 1964, but in announcing her candidacy 50 years ago the Skowhegan native forever changed the way Americans would look at the role of women in politics.
The announcement on Jan. 27, 1964, before the Women’s National Press Club in Washington, D.C., made history.
Later that year, she became the first woman in the United States to be a national convention candidate for nomination for president by a major political party.
Smith’s candidacy had symbolic impact, according to Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“What’s significant isn’t that she came close, because she didn’t really come that close, but that she is somebody that people have looked to, particularly women, as an inspiration for their own run for office,” Melcher said. “It’s a case where I think it had more impact in the long run in motivating other women in both parties to be interested in politics. It got people used to the idea of a woman candidate.”
Katie Ouilette, 83, of East Madison, who grew up in Skowhegan, said she was so inspired by Smith that she held a party celebrating Smith’s bid for the presidency even though she lived out of state at the time.
“Oh my goodness — I was so thrilled. That’s why I had a party,” Ouilette said Monday. “We celebrated a woman being (a candidate). That woman would have made a wonderful president, even back in those days — they were man days.”
In the decades following Smith’s run, many women have followed, many gaining delegates for the national Democratic and Republican conventions. But no woman has yet won a party’s nomination, and only two — Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 — won vice presidential nominations.
But countless women, like Ouilette, were inspired to community service by Smith. Ouilette led the effort to designate Skowhegan as a Maine Street Maine community and was involved on the board of the Skowhegan Heritage Council and a member of CATV Channel 11, the public access television station for Skowhegan, Madison and Anson.
At the time of her announcement, Smith was in her 24th year in Congress and an established groundbreaker.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who occupies Smith’s seat in Congress, gave a floor speech Monday marking the 50th anniversary of Smith’s announcement that she would run for president. Collins said she was thrilled to have met Smith in her Senate office in Washington in 1971, when Collins was a high school senior from Caribou.
On Monday, Collins said she celebrated the anniversary of Smith’s announcement and the presence of a record number of women in the U.S. Senate.
“Her courageous âDeclaration of Conscience,’ delivered in the Senate on June 1, 1950, turned the tide against McCarthyism and reminded all Americans of our nation’s core values of free expression and independent thought,” Collins said. “On this milestone anniversary, I am honored to celebrate an extraordinary Maine woman who tried and failed in one endeavor, but, in so doing, inspired generations of Americans with her strength and determination, and demonstrated, as she once said, that a woman’s place is everywhere.”
David Richards, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, said Smith pointed out in her announcement more reasons she should not run for president than reasons for her to run.
After all, Smith said in her 18-minute speech announcing her candidacy, it was a man’s world.
Then she shocked the Women’s National Press Club and said she was running.
“It’s very interesting the way she constructs the speech,” Richards said. “She goes through a litany of reasons that people have told her not to run — basically it boiled down to the fact that she’s a woman and that she won’t be taken seriously, won’t be able to raise enough money, won’t get enough interest, she won’t get enough votes — why bother?”
Richards said if people told Smith she could not do something, that made her want to do it all the more. He said Smith led the Women’s National Press Club audience in one direction — then took them in the opposite direction and dropped the big announcement.
“As gratifying as are the reasons advanced urging me to run, I find the reasons advanced against my running to be far more impelling,” Smith told the group. “For were I to run, it would be under severe limitations with respect to lack of money, lack of organization, and lack of time because of the requirements to be on the job in Washington doing my elected duty instead of abandoning those duties to campaign — plus the very heavy odds against me.
“So because of these very impelling reasons against my running, I have decided that I shall enter the New Hampshire presidential preferential primary and the Illinois primary.”
Smith competed in three primaries — New Hampshire, Illinois and Oregon. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Smith got 27 delegates on the first ballot, fifth behind Goldwater, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Smith was born in Skowhegan in December 1897. Her entry into politics came through the career of Clyde Smith, the man she married in 1930. Clyde was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936. Smith served as his secretary. When he died in 1940, she succeeded her husband and then was elected in her own right.
After four terms in the House, she won election to the United States Senate in 1948. In so doing, she became the first woman elected to both houses of Congress.
After another four terms in the Senate and 32 years in Congress, Smith lost re-election in 1972. She retired to her home in Skowhegan and began planning for the establishment of a library. The Margaret Chase Smith Library opened in 1982 and for the next dozen years, she presided over the library, meeting with admirers, former constituents, politicians, policymakers, researchers, and school children.
In January 2011 the University of Maine assumed responsibility for all daily operations and programs at the library on Norridgewock Avenue. The Portland-based Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established by Smith in 1983 to support the library, took ownership of the library the same year.
Margaret Chase Smith died at her home on May 29, 1995.