One popular critique of Hillary Clinton, dating back to the beginning of her political career, is that she would never have such success without her husband’s name. Only by riding on his coattails, most recently articulated by everyone’s favorite misogynist Rush Limbaugh, has Clinton become a Senator, Secretary of State, and campaigned twice for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet historians know that to enter politics, women often relied on powerful husbands to start them on their path. Republican Margaret Chase Smith entered politics by following directly in her husband’s footsteps. Smith came from a working class background — her father was a barber and her mother a factory worker — and she herself worked as a teacher, telephone operator, and factory office manager before her marriage to Clyde Smith. After her husband was elected to Congress in 1936, she managed his Congressional office in Washington. When Clyde died in 1940, Smith won his seat in a special election, becoming the first Congresswoman from Maine.
As Clinton did in her 2008 presidential run, Smith emphasized “masculine” politics in her first campaign, campaigning on expanding the navy and greatly appealing to her shipbuilding district. But once elected, she used that hawkish stance to benefit women. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Smith ushered the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act through Congress in 1947, upgrading women’s military status from volunteer to regular. Such success positioned her well for a Senate run, which she won despite opposition from Maine’s Republican Party.
As Senator, Smith came to national prominence. On June 1, 1950, she denounced her colleague Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts from the floor of the Senate:
This “Declaration of Conscience” condemned McCarthyism years before the country would turn on his investigations. It was Smith’s principled stand that brought her to national fame, not her husband’s name.
Smith would continue to surprise her colleagues and constituents. In January 1964, Smith announced her intention to run for President. She announced, “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”2 As the first woman whose name was entered for a major party’s nomination, Smith didn’t stop trying. She would hold her Senate seat until 1972, when her opponent’s focus on her age (she was 74) led to defeat.
Those who declare Hillary Clinton may be the first woman president because of Bill should know that this is neither a new critique of, nor a new strategy for, women politicians. Women often needed the boost provided by name recognition and political networking to break through glass ceilings. Rather than smearing Clinton for dynastic ambitions, we should admire her own political accomplishments; instead of blaming Clinton for the failings of her husband’s administration (the 1994 Crime Bill comes to mind), we should look critically at her career and her mistakes. Margaret Chase Smith is just one example of another woman who used her husband’s position to step into power herself. As a politician’s wife she jump-started her own career, but like Hillary Clinton, she left her husband’s shadow and became a force to be reckoned with in her own name.
Further Listening and Reading
“Margaret Chase Smith: Cold War Warrior in Pearls,” Radio Diaries podcast.
Margaret Chase Smith, “A Declaration of Conscience” (June 1, 1950).
Margaret Chase Smith’s official House biography.
Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, 2nd edition (Rutgers University Press, 1999).
Eric R. Crouse, An American Stand: Senator Margaret Chase Smith and the Communist Menace, 1948-1972 (Lexington Press, 2013).
- Congressional Record, Senate, 81st Congress, 2nd session (June 1, 1950): 7894-7895, quoted in History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “ Smith, Margaret Chase” (May 6, 2016).Return to text.
- Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976): 76, quoted in History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “ Smith, Margaret Chase” (May 6, 2016).Return to text.