Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith didn’t win the Republican Party nomination for president in 1964, but in announcing her candidacy 50 years ago, the Skowhegan native forever changed the way Americans would look at the role of women in politics.
The announcement on Jan. 27, 1964, before the Women’s National Press Club in Washington, D.C., made history.
Later that year, she became the first woman in the United States to be placed in nomination for president by a major political party at its national convention.
Smith’s candidacy had symbolic impact, according to Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“What’s significant isn’t that she came close, because she didn’t really come that close, but that she is somebody that people have looked to, particularly women, as an inspiration for their own run for office,” Melcher said. “It’s a case where I think it had more impact in the long run in motivating other women in both parties to be interested in politics. It got people used to the idea of a woman candidate.”
Katie Ouilette, 83, of East Madison, who grew up in Skowhegan, said she was so inspired by Smith that she held a party celebrating Smith’s bid for the presidency even though she lived out of state at the time.
“Oh my goodness – I was so thrilled. That’s why I had a party,” Ouilette said Monday. “We celebrated a woman being nominated. That woman would have made a wonderful president, even back in those days – they were man days.”
At the time of her announcement, Smith was in her 24th year in Congress and an established groundbreaker.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who occupies Smith’s seat in Congress, gave a floor speech Monday marking the 50th anniversary of Smith’s announcement. Collins said she was thrilled to have met Smith in her Senate office in Washington in 1971 when Collins was a high school senior from Caribou. On Monday, Collins said she celebrated the anniversary of Smith’s announcement and the presence of a record number of women in the U.S. Senate.
David Richards, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, said in her announcement Smith pointed out more reasons she should not run for president than reasons for her to run.
After all, Smith said in her 18-minute speech announcing her candidacy, it was a man’s world.
Then she shocked the Women’s National Press Club and said she was running.
“It’s very interesting the way she constructs the speech,” Richards said. “She goes through a litany of reasons that people have told her not to run – basically it boiled down to the fact that she’s a woman and that she won’t be taken seriously, won’t be able to raise enough money, won’t get enough interest, she won’t get enough votes – why bother?”
Smith competed in three primaries – New Hampshire, Illinois and Oregon. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Smith got 27 delegates, fifth behind Goldwater, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney.
In January 2011, the University of Maine assumed responsibility for all daily operations and programs at the library on Norridgewock Avenue. The Portland-based Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established by Smith in 1983 to support the library, took ownership of the library the same year.
Margaret Chase Smith died at her home on Memorial Day, May 29, 1995.
Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: