January 27

Margaret Chase Smith’s historic impact still felt 50 years later

Skowhegan native’s role as first woman to be put into nomination for president at a major party’s national convention marked by Collins, others.

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

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BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan announces her candidacy for president of the United States on Jan. 27, 1964, and later that year became the first woman to be placed in nomination by a major political party at its national convention. Her announcement was made before the National Women’s Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Contributed photo

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 a national convention candidate for nomination for president by a major political party.

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 (a candidate). That woman would have made a wonderful president, even back in those days — they were man days.”

In the decades following Smith’s run, many women have followed, many gaining delegates for the national Democratic and Republican conventions. But no woman has yet won a party’s nomination, and only two — Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 — won vice presidential nominations.

But countless women, like Ouilette, were inspired to community service by Smith. Ouilette led the effort to designate Skowhegan as a Maine Street Maine community and was involved on the board of the Skowhegan Heritage Council and a member of CATV Channel 11, the public access television station for Skowhegan, Madison and Anson.

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 that she would run for president. 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.

“Her courageous ‘Declaration of Conscience,’ delivered in the Senate on June 1, 1950, turned the tide against McCarthyism and reminded all Americans of our nation’s core values of free expression and independent thought,” Collins said. “On this milestone anniversary, I am honored to celebrate an extraordinary Maine woman who tried and failed in one endeavor, but, in so doing, inspired generations of Americans with her strength and determination, and demonstrated, as she once said, that a woman’s place is everywhere.”

David Richards, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, said Smith pointed out in her announcement 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.

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