“Women administer the home. They set the rules, enforce them, 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.”
– Margaret Chase Smith
First elected to the House of Representatives in 1940, following the death of her husband, Rep. Clyde H. Smith, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was elected to the Senate in 1948 and in 1950 she stood up to fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy:
“The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”
In 1952, a reporter asked her what she would do if she woke up one morning and found herself in the White House. “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.” she replied.
By 1964 Margaret Chase Smith, the only woman in the U.S. Senate, was well known across the country. The Republican nomination for President was wide open with no shortage of candidates including Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, Bill Scranton and Harold Stassen.
Senator Smith started to receive packages of gag hats to “toss in the ring” along with letters urging her to run. She wrote back to her supporters thanking them, but noting “it could not possibly happen.” However, when a news story reported she might consider a run, Smith got mail from all 50 states and realized that people were taking her candidacy seriously.
In a speech to the Women’s National Press Club on Jan. 27, 1964, Smith listed the reasons people offered for her to run. She had more national experience than other candidates, she would be breaking a barrier for women, and she was a moderate choice. Also, as she did not have a lot of money nor was she part of a political machine, she would be more politically independent.
There were reasons given why she should not run. Some argued that women should not be president. Others said she was unlikely to win, that she would not have the physical stamina, the financial resources, nor the political organization needed. A major argument against running was that she would have to miss Senate votes and end her consecutive roll call record of 1,590 votes.
She told the Women’s National Press Club that there were “heavy odds against me.” But she said, “because of the compelling reasons against my running. I have decided I shall.”
The Bangor Daily News ran a political cartoon the next day showing her picking out a pair of running shoes.
While Smith assured people that she was a “serious” candidate, she also pledged she would not accept campaign funds. She had no paid campaign workers, planned no radio or television advertising, and pledged to campaign only when the Senate was not in session voting on legislation.
Smith began her New Hampshire campaign on Feb. 10 near the Canadian border. The temperature was 30 below zero. She drove over 1,000 miles visiting barbershops, newspaper offices, diners, dry goods stores and post offices, shaking hands with everyone she met. She came in fifth.
Her next campaign stop was Illinois. As in New Hampshire, her campaign motto was, “There is nothing more effective than a handshake and a little conversation.” Smith campaigned just two weekends in Illinois and spent $85. Nevertheless, she got about 26 percent of the vote — a quarter of a million votes.
By summer Barry Goldwater seemed to have the nomination wrapped up. The early days of the convention were contentious. The party was bitterly split between Barry Goldwater’s conservatives and the more liberal wing of Nelson Rockefeller.
Vermont Governor George Aiken offered Margaret Chase Smith’s name in nomination. “I am severely restricted in what I can offer you for your support. Not a cabinet job, an ambassador’s appointment, or even a government contract. I can’t even invite you all out for coffee, because my candidate sent every big check, every little check, every $10 bill, every $1 bill, and every penny straight back where they came from.”
Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a major party’s political convention, was blunt: “ I’d like to be President. I think my experience and my record are greater than any other candidate or any other of the unannounced candidates. It’s a real challenge, and that’s one of the paramount things. When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.”
She came in second in the balloting, with votes from 27 delegates.
Barry Goldwater won the nomination, but lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide in November.