published: June 2019

The Year of the Woman, Then & Now

Margaret Madeleine Chase Smith

by Diane Bairstow

100 years ago on June 4, the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was passed by Congress and sent to the states to be ratified. On August 18, 1920, it finally became law. This was after decades of protests, marches, lobbying, civil disobedience, picketing and agitation. Few of the early women’s rights advocates lived to see this legislation passed.

Today we have still not seen a woman president, and even though a record number of women (117) were elected to Congress in 2018, women are still outnumbered by men four-to-one in both the House and the Senate. This year six smart, wise and intelligent Democratic women are running for president, standing on the shoulders of the women who have gone before.

Nominated by the Equal Rights Party in 1872, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president. Since then, several women have run on 3rd party tickets, but only ten women have run and made it to at least one Democratic or Republican primary or caucus. Of these, only Hillary Clinton received the nomination.

In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, was the first to make it to a major party primary. She was also the first woman representative, and thereafter first woman senator, from Maine, and the first woman to be elected to both houses of Congress. She was also the first senator—male or female—to stand up to Joe McCarthy.

During the 1950s Joe McCarthy held the nation, and the Congress, hostage to his anti-communist campaign of terror. At that time the country was gripped by the “Red Scare.”

After World War II, Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, was conducting sophisticated espionage in the U.S. and was setting up puppet states across central and eastern Europe. People were concerned about the communist threat, and conservative politicians used this to their advantage, labelling progressive movements such as labor unions, child labor reform and women’s suffrage as communist plots, and Roosevelt’s New Deal as socialism.

McCarthy was unpopular in the Senate due to his short temper and fits of rage. However, he rose to national prominence when the Washington Post wrote a story about a speech he gave, during which he brandished a piece of paper with the names of 205 (supposedly) known communists in the State Department. Using unethical tactics and baseless accusations, he led an aggressive anticommunist campaign that destroyed countless lives and careers. He became so powerful that members of the both the House and the Senate were afraid to stand up against him for fear of retribution.

Chase Smith was initially impressed with McCarthy, but quickly became disillusioned by the lack of any solid evidence to back his claims. She was certain a Democrat would take him on, but no one stepped up.

First, she spoke out in her nationally syndicated column, “Washington and You,” that the American people need “written evidence in black and white instead of conflicting oral outbursts …”  Finally, on June 1, 1950, she spoke out on the floor of the Senate. She gave a 15-minute speech and produced her Declaration of Conscience signed by six other brave senators.

Margaret Madeleine Chase Smith being sworn into the House of Representatives. She was originally elected to fill the seat vacated by the death of her husband, but she went on to be elected on her own merit. To this date, she still holds the title of the longest serving Republican woman in Congress.

She spoke of “a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.”  She spoke of both parties playing directly into the “Communist design of confuse, divide, and conquer … spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes.”

She said she was not willing for her party “to ride to victory [against the Democrats] on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear . . . Surely” she said, “we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.”

She was optimistic about the citizens of our nation. “I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.” In conclusion, she stated, “As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

Her words are as powerful and relevant today as they were in 1950. Margaret Madeleine Chase Smith is a role model for political courage. The country awaits someone brave enough to follow her lead.

Endnote, “It took another four years for McCarthy to finally be censured by the Senate after a Washington Post exposé revealed his unscrupulous tactics.

“The year of the woman will continue next month.”