BEYOND THE GLASS CEILING: the life and legacy of Margaret Chase Smith

by | Nov 4, 2020 | Lisa Black | 6 comments

by Lisa Black

In observance of election week, I again revisit a trailblazing woman of U.S. politics: Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the Senate and the House, who crafted the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, and was one of the first who dared to protest Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare tactics. 

But before that, the young woman from Maine taught grade school, worked as a telephone operator, and managed a newspaper’s circulation and the business operations of a textile mill. Then she married her husband, Clyde Smith, and joined the Republican state committee. Clyde became a U.S. Congressman; twenty years older than her and maybe a bit of a player, he died after only ten years of marriage. Margaret campaigned to take his seat and won…and kept winning until she switched to the Senate in 1948. 

Up until that same year, women served in the military only during wars (except for nurses). Opponents said that women should stay only the reserve forces ‘until their functioning during peacetime could be observed and assessed.’ The term “Reserve”” was added after ‘services’ in the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.. But supporters rallied and global circumstances added pressure. The Soviet Union had taken over Czechoslovakia and isolated East Berlin…clearly the U.S. needed to maintain its military might but no politician had the stomach for a draft. The country couldn’t afford to pass up a source of volunteer womanpower, and the original act passed.

Two years later, still a junior senator, she sat on two committees with Joe McCarthy and didn’t care for it. First she pressed him for proof of his accusations, then, when she could stand it no longer, she first got six other senators behind her, then made a speech on the Senate floor. The Communist threat was real, she said—-but: “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism: the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right to independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood.” McCarthy got her replaced on his committee (with Richard Nixon) but not in the senate. He referred to her as ‘Snow White with her six Dwarves.’ Khrushchev called her a ‘devil in disguise,’ and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. 

Margaret took on causes large and small. Every single day she wore a rose in her lapel, continually campaigning to have the rose declared the national flower, and continually battling fellow Republican Everett Dirksen, who pushed the marigold ticket. Dirksen, for his part, was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968; when he died in 1969, Margaret left a single marigold on his casket. (The rose eventually got the official nod in 1987, long after her retirement.)

And she was our first female presidential contender, with her name officially submitted for nomination at the 1964 Republican convention. Certain of the media never failed to point out her age at the time (66), of course without actually mentioning the unmentionable (menopause). Women were delighted to see someone break the ceiling, but Margaret—along with Henry Cabot Lodge and Nelson Rockefeller—lost. To Barry Goldwater, who then lost to Lyndon Johnson. 

She finally lost her seat in 1973 and retired. The first George Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 1989. Amazing to the end, she lived to the age of 98, passing away in 1995. And if you have a green thumb you can grow a Margaret Chase Smith Rose, a combination of the hybrid tea and grandiflora with four-inch brilliant red blooms.

Who’s your favorite breaker of glass ceilings?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Rogue Women Writers

    I remember Margaret Chase Smith — it was great to read more details about this trail-blazer. Another woman who made history was Sandra Day O'Conner who has been a friend of ours over the years ever since she was appointed to be the first woman to sit on the US Supreme Court. After she retired from the court, she spear-headed a program to teach civics to our children. Thanks for a great article here! … Karna Small Bodman

  2. Lisa Black

    I'm in awe that you were actually a pal of Sandra Day O'Connor!!

  3. Gayle Lynds

    I've always admired her, Lisa. And now, living in Maine, I see her name and think with great admiration of her. She paved the way for many of us. Thank you for a great recounting of her amazing life!

  4. Chris Goff

    I didn't remember her, and she sounds fascinating. Thanks for the history lesson. We should all aspire to be like Margaret Chase Smith.

  5. Valerie Constantine

    Great blog, Lisa. I've always admired Katherine Graham, the second woman in history to become publisher of a major newspaper – the Washington Post who broke the Watergate story under her leadership. And on a purely non-political note, at least as far as Washington is concerned, another Kathryn, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Still waiting for the first woman to win the White House.

  6. Lisa Black

    Those are two more great examples of women breaking new ground.