Smith blazes trail for women in politics


Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine waves to the crowd at the 1964 Republican National Convention. She was the first woman to seek the presidential nomination from a major political party. (Margaret Chase Smith Library)
January 26

Why hasn’t there ever been a Madam President?

It’s certainly not for lack of trying. At least 35 women have run for president of the United States, usually as candidates of little-known political parties with no chance of winning.

Fifty years ago Monday, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine became the first woman to seek the backing of a major political party when she announced her candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

At the time, Smith was the only woman in the U.S. Senate — and the only one who had been elected to the Senate. (Five other women had been appointed earlier to fill vacancies.)

With her gray hair, the 66-year-old Smith looked like a grandmother. Every day she stuck a fresh rose on her lapel. She worked hard, smiled agreeably and put up with the inconvenience of being the only woman in the Senate. (She had to time her bathroom breaks carefully, because the Senate lounge had no women’s restroom.)

She got along well with other senators, but Smith could be tough. She was the first member of Congress to publicly criticize fellow Republican senator Joseph McCarthy for ruining people’s careers by accusing them of being Communists, members of an unpopular political party.

Her courage and independence won her many admirers. In the Senate, she voted only half of the time with fellow Republicans. Party leaders saw her as unreliable, but she believed that Republicans were right on some issues and Democrats were right on others.

As her reputation for fairness grew, Smith received letters urging her to run for president. Finally, she agreed.

Smith refused to accept money from others to help pay for her campaign. She kept expenses low, wanting to prove that a presidential candidate didn’t need to have millions of dollars.

Smith spent a total of $335 on her presidential campaign. She entered primaries in just three states: New Hampshire, Illinois and Oregon. By the time she arrived in San Francisco for the Republican National Convention, 16 delegates were committed to voting for her — nowhere near the 655 delegates needed to win the nomination.

But her name was placed in nomination anyway. It was the first time a woman had been put forward for president of the United States at the convention of a major political party.

Presidential candidates usually stay away from the convention hall during the nominating process, but Smith sat beaming in the audience. A small crowd waved posters and roses while a band played “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” With tears in her eyes, Smith stood and waved to her supporters with a wilted rose.

Margaret Chase Smith did not win the nomination — Barry Goldwater did, and went on to lose to President Lyndon Johnson — but her effort inspired a new generation of women to enter politics and move closer to the day when there will be a Madam President.

— Rebecca Jones

Show Comments