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Mrs. Smith Runs for President
by Jo Freeman

Published in Maine Sunday Telegram, January 30, 2000, City Edition, p. C:3.

On January 27, 1964 the Republican Senator from Maine stood before a luncheon of the Women's National Press Club held at the Mayflower Hotel and announced that she was running for President. At this moment Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to become a candidate for a major party nomination for the nation's highest office.
Smith was used to breaking traditions and making precedents. While she had been elected to the House in 1940 to fill the seat vacated by the death of her husband Clyde, she had been elected to the Senate on her own in 1948, and re-elected in 1954 and 1960. In 1964 she was serving on three important Senate Committees: Appropriations, Armed Services, and Aeronautical and Space Sciences.
As a minority of one (and for six years two) in the most exclusive club in the world, she was always in the public eye. But never so much as on June 1, 1950, when she stood before the Senate and accused the Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, of turning her beloved chamber into a "forum for hate." Her Declaration of Conscience, signed by six other Senators, was the first Republican opposition to McCarthy's reign of terror through random accusations of Communist sympathies.
Smith also spoke up for women. While serving in the House Naval Affairs Committee during World War II she supported women working in war industries, the Equal Rights Amendment, and women in the military. She took these concerns with her to the Senate.
Smith's announcement of her candidacy was not spontaneous. For over a year she had received a steady flow of mail urging her to run. While flattered, she did not begin to take the possibility seriously until her mail escalated after an AP story late in 1963 that she might run. It wasn't party leaders or women's groups that convinced her to do so; the former were flustered at the thought and the latter were silent. It was ordinary people.
Sen. Smith listed four arguments her correspondents gave as to why she should run (and six why she should not run). She had more experience than any of the other candidates. The voters wanted a wider choice than they offered. Lacking money, machine or party backing, she was independent of others' control.
But just as important to Smith was the fact "that through me for the first time the women of the United States had an opportunity to break the barrier against women being seriously considered for the presidency of the United States -- to destroy any political bigotry against women on this score just as the late John F. Kennedy had broken the political barrier on religion and destroyed once and for all such political bigotry."
Of course, Kennedy wasn't the first Catholic to run for President, and Smith wasn't the first woman. In 1872 Victoria Claflin Woodhull created the Equal Rights Party as a platform for her own candidacy, and in 1884 and 1888 attorney Belva Lockwood headed its ticket. During the next decades several women were slated by third parties as Vice Presidential candidates. But Sen. Smith was the first to run as a Republican, or a Democrat. Thus she was more of a pathbreaker than JFK, who, after all followed in the footsteps of Democratic nominee Alfred E. Smith.
Only a few commentators asked whether a woman, any woman, should run for President. But more than a few took side swipes at her age. Although 66 was within the normal range for heads of state, and women regularly outlive men, they pointed out that it wasn't the optimal age for U.S. Presidents. The optimal age -- late forties to early fifties -- was when most women went through menopause. Reporters also asked whether Smith would have the stamina to serve in the world's most demanding office.
As if to answer them, Smith, who had the best attendance record in the Senate, spent a week campaigning in New Hampshire while the temperature was below zero. Unlike the men, she didn't wear pants. In a field of seven candidates in the Republican primary, Smith got 2.4 percent of the vote.
Smith did better in subsequent primaries, getting 25 percent of the Republican votes in Illinois. No one, including her, believed she would win the nomination. But no one believed most of the men running for President would either. Smith lasted to the bitter end of the contentious Republican Convention held in San Francisco in July. She was formally nominated for President and got 27 votes.
Sen. Smith was defeated when she ran for re-election in 1972, but lived on in Maine until age 97.