Margaret Chase Smith was the first of many things in American politics. She was the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate (representing Maine). When she retired from the Senate in 1973, she was the longest-serving woman senator until 2011. And she was the first woman to be placed in nomination at a major party convention to run for president of the United States. Smith did not achieve the nomination at the Republican convention in 1964, but she made Americans sit up and consider the idea of a woman president.
Smith’s entry into the race sparked hundreds of newspaper stories. They invariably mentioned her appearance and her age. “Trim as a model, she carries herself more like a clubwoman than a politician,” one story noted. “At 66, she is an exceedingly attractive figure,” another reported, praising Smith as “slender, silver haired,” sincere, and quick to laugh. But if commentators and reporters admired her figure, they expressed reservation about her length of years. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times identified Smith’s age as one of the biggest obstacles she faced. Richard Wilson wrote that “Mrs. Smith has qualifications and experience for the Presidency no less than many men who have served in the office.” But her age “tends to be a disqualifying factor.” This was especially true given that she would be not only old but also an old woman. The optimum age for presidents, in Wilson’s view, was late forties or early fifties. Alas, at this time in life, “the female of the species undergoes physical changes and emotional distress of varying severity and duration.” The author never used the indelicate term “menopause” in his article. But he underscored the change in a woman midlife “is known to have an effect on judgment and behavior.” The steady allusions to age were not lost on the candidate herself. “Since my candidacy was announced, almost every news story starts off ‘the sixty-six-year-old senator,’ ” she observed. “I haven’t seen the age played up in the case of the male candidates.”
Smith was extremely popular in her state and had powerful allies in Congress, but she didn’t want to play the campaign game. She didn’t fundraise, and she didn’t campaign much because she refused to miss Senate votes, decisions which doomed her race no matter her sex. But her story is one of ambition and ethics and hard work. Smith is especially remembered for a 1950 speech in which she condemned fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy for his tactics while never mentioning him by name. Read the story of Margaret Chase Smith at The New Yorker.