In "The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience" (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS), former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, write about the lives of women in history who have made a difference, ranging from social activists and political figures to writers and Olympians.
One of the women they highlight is the trailblazing Representative and Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, who denounced Sen. Joe McCarthy and became the first woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination.
Read the excerpt below, and don't misson "CBS Sunday Morning" September 29!
Margaret Chase Smith
When I was a little girl, my family subscribed to Life magazine, which came to our house every week on Friday. When I came home from school, I'd eagerly grab it and lie down on the floor in our living room to read it before I had to set the table for dinner. It was in those pages that I first encountered Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who was the first example I ever remember seeing of a woman elected official. Following her career—from the campaigns that led to her becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress to her history-making candidacy for president of the United States in 1964—shaped my understanding of politics and public service. She embodied the thrill of breaking barriers—and the challenges that come with being "the first."
Born and raised in Maine, Margaret discovered a passion for politics when her husband, Clyde Harold Smith, was elected to Congress. She campaigned for him and, after he was elected, joined him in Washington. During his first term, he became gravely ill, and Margaret stepped in to fill as many of his obligations as she could. She traveled back and forth between Washington and Maine, appearing at events on behalf of her husband. With Margaret's help, Clyde was reelected in 1938. His health, however, declined quickly. In the spring of 1940, he put out a statement urging his friends and supporters to stand behind Margaret if he could not run in the upcoming election. "I know of no one who has the full knowledge of my ideas and plans or is as well qualified as she is, to carry on these ideas and my unfinished work for my district." He died the next day.
Margaret easily won the special election to serve out her husband's unexpired term. At the time, most of the few women who served in office had been elected or appointed to fill a seat vacated by a husband or father. It was so common it even had a name: "the widow's mandate." Though she had never planned on it, Margaret was now the state's first woman member of Congress. ("Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington," read one headline.)
Taking office was one thing, but, as Margaret soon found out, staying there was another. The primary election for the next term was under way within a week of her taking office. She faced off against four male opponents, one of whom argued that, against a backdrop of the war in Europe and questions of America's role at home, there was just too much at stake to elect a woman to Congress. A local newspaper columnist agreed, sniping that the primary was at risk of hinging on a "question of sex" rather than "ability." But Margaret had already proved herself to the people of Maine, and she won.
Throughout her life, Margaret dismissed the idea that she was a feminist. She was a moderate, not a radical, and resented the idea that she or any woman should be treated differently because of their gender. "I never asked for any special privileges," she said later of her time in Congress. "And I can assure you I never got any." Still, she was a quiet and steadfast champion of policies advancing women's rights, equality, and dignity; I think she was a feminist even without claiming the label. Margaret voted again and again for the Equal Rights Amendment, even cosponsoring it in 1945. (What would she say about the fact that we still haven't passed it more than seven decades later?) Despite the critics who doubted that a woman could play a role in foreign policy, Margaret eventually served on the House Naval Affairs Committee. At the time, women who were part of the armed services were considered "volunteers" and didn't receive any benefits. Her signature piece of legislation was the Women's Armed Forces Integration Act, which led to the extension of benefits to all uniformed women in the military.
After eight years in the House, Margaret launched her campaign for the United States Senate. The Maine Republican Party was less than thrilled by her many votes across party lines, and they opposed her candidacy. Her opponents denigrated her in the press, suggesting that "the Senate was no place for a woman." She ran proudly on her experience in Congress, using the slogan "Don't trade a record for a promise." Right before the election, she was the victim of a smear campaign accusing her of being a Communist because she had supported the New Deal, the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan. With the help of a dedicated cadre of women volunteers who were the backbone of her shoestring campaign, Margaret Chase Smith won her election in a landslide.
When she entered the Senate, Margaret was clear-eyed about the reality of her humble position: She was a junior member and the only woman alongside ninety-five men. That didn't stop her from standing up for what she knew was right—even if it meant standing alone. When Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy used his position to launch a broad investigation of government employees and other Americans to root out Communists, whom he saw in every corner, Margaret was one of the first to sound the alarm over what she saw as dangerous demagoguery. His persecutorial tactics destroyed reputations and lives. Yet it became painfully clear that no other senator was going to speak out against him.
On the morning of June 1, 1950, she ran into Senator McCarthy on the "little Senate subway train" that would take her to the floor. She would remember their exchange for the rest of her life. Catching sight of her determined expression, McCarthy commented: "Margaret, you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?" "Yes," she answered. "And you will not like it!"
In her groundbreaking speech that day, she called out his hate and character assassination and the tactics he was using that became known as "McCarthyism." "Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition," she began. "It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear." She eviscerated McCarthy and called out her colleagues for their lack of courage in standing up to him. "I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear." She and six other Republican senators signed a statement expressing their concerns known as her "Declaration of Conscience." (McCarthy later mocked her and her cosigners as "Snow White and the Six Dwarfs." He would have been a natural on Twitter.) She continued to oppose McCarthy at personal and political cost for four more years, until 1954, when the Senate finally censured him for his conduct and ended his career.
With her seminal speech, Margaret captured the national spotlight. Reporters and prominent figures in Washington wondered whether she could run for vice president—or even president. Yet, as one reporter bemoaned, "It is considered doubtful that the country will see a woman head of state in the near or even distant future." (Unfortunately, they didn't know how right they were.)
Speculation mounted as to whether Margaret might launch an unprecedented run—would she or wouldn't she? In January 1964, her campaign manager drafted a speech to the Women's National Press Club with two endings: one announcing that she was in, one declaring she was out. In her speech, she dryly detailed the reasons she had heard about why she should not run. "First, there are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House—that this is a man's world and that it should be kept that way—and that a woman on the national ticket of a political party would be more of a handicap than a strength," she said that day. "Second, it is contended that the odds are too heavily against me for even the most remote chance of victory—and that I should not run in the face of what most observers see as certain and crushing defeat. Third, it is contended that as a woman I would not have the physical stamina and strength to run." (Ah, memories!) She concluded with a twinkle in her eye: "So, because of these very impelling reasons against my running, I have decided that I shall." That day, she became the first woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination.
From the beginning, Margaret ran a scrappy, upstart campaign. Reporters were not kind to her: They commented on her hair, her figure, and her age. "Since my candidacy was announced, almost every news story starts off 'the sixty-six-year-old senator.' I haven't seen the age played up in the case of the male candidates," she pointed out.
At that year's Republican National Convention, she became the first woman to have her name put in nomination for the presidency. That night, delegates in the convention center carried signs reading "Smith for President" and "The Lady from Maine." Though Senator Barry Goldwater ultimately clinched the nomination, she sent a resounding message that resonated for many women, including me.
Chelsea writes: One of my favorite fun facts about Margaret is that she wore a red rose in her lapel every day, gave them to her colleagues, and fought for years to have the rose declared the official flower of the United States. She faced staunch opposition from Senate Republican Leader Everett M. Dirksen, who argued that it should be the marigold. In 1987, long after her retirement, Margaret won this battle, and Congress designated the rose as the national flower.
Margaret lived to be ninety-seven years old. I included her in the video called "History Made" that played at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 7, 2016, when I reached the 2,383-delegate mark to become the Democratic nominee for president. I wanted more Americans to know about her. She has been on my mind even more than usual recently. I think often of her public example of courage in this time when her party seems to have lost its way. I can't help but think how much better off the Republican Party—and our country—would be if there were more like Margaret in public office today.
From "The Book of Gutsy Women" by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. Copyright © 2019 by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
For more info:
- "The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience" by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon
- Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton: The Gutsy Women Tour includes stops in Brooklyn (Oct. 1), Chicago (Oct 14), San Francisco (Oct. 20), Danville, Calif. (Oct. 20), Minneapolis (Oct. 24), Houston (Oct. 25), and Denver (Nov. 4)
for more features.