Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm

In this week of firsts, we consider the women who first ran for major party nominations in the United States: Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm.

Margaret Chase Smith

Margaret Chase Smith won her first seat in the House of Representatives in a special election after her husband, Clyde Smith, died in 1940. One week later, she was already fighting to serve as more than a placeholder when she went up against four male rivals for the primary nomination to retain her seat. She won that battle, and served four terms in the House. Smith moved on to the Senate in 1949 as the first woman elected to both houses of Congress. At that time, Smith was the only woman in the Senate. Although other women were appointed or elected to fill vacancies resulting from deaths, it was another decade before another woman was elected to the Senate and served a full term.

“Senator Margaret Chase Smith” Local Identifier: 306-PS-50-2756 (NAID: 6802716)

As a senator, Smith quickly claimed the national spotlight when she publicly condemned McCarthyism on June 1, 1950. In her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, Smith decried the baseless accusations that were being lobbed about the Senate and defended “basic principles of Americanism” such as “the right to criticize” and “the right to hold unpopular beliefs.” Smith also disparaged the Truman administration and called instead for unity in issues of national security. The speech led many to speculate that she could be a vice-presidential candidate.

A day in the life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith as she considered whether to run for president. (Local Identifier: 263.1588)

When Margaret Chase Smith decided to run for president in 1964, it was with apparent reluctance. Her principles dictated that she not miss time on the job as a senator, nor would she accept donations for her campaign. In addition, she planned to staff her campaign with only volunteers and would not run ads on television or radio. Clearly this was not a winning strategy, and so Smith’s run for president was largely symbolic. Despite that, Smith won nearly thirty percent of the vote in Illinois, one of two states where she actively campaigned. She also won votes in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas, where she had no campaign presence. At the national convention in July, Smith became the first woman to have her name put forth for the nomination of a major party, and garnered the votes of 26 delegates.

The lead story in this Universal newsreel shows Senator Smith announcing her run for president at the Women’s National Press Club on January 27, 1964.
(Local Identifier: UN-UN-37-8)

Barry Goldwater ultimately won the Republican nomination in 1964, and was defeated by Lyndon Baines Johnson in a landslide. Margaret Chase Smith continued to serve in the Senate until her defeat in the 1972 election. In total, Smith served more than 32 years in Congress.

Shirley Chisholm

Before being elected to the New York State legislature in 1964 (only the second African-American woman to serve in that body), Shirley Chisholm spent nearly two decades in early childhood education. That experience drove much of her political career as she fought for the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), federal funds to support childcare, and defending the national school lunch program from a veto by President Gerald Ford.

Shirley Chisholm, shortly after her election to Congress in 1968. (306-PSC-68-3539)
Shirley Chisholm, shortly after her election to Congress in 1968. Local Identifier: 306-PSC-68-3539 (NAID: 7452354)

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives. Chisholm was controversial from the start; in her first speech on the floor, she spoke against the war in Vietnam and vowed that she would not vote to approve military funding.

Just as Margaret Chase Smith’s political career was coming to an end, Shirley Chisholm launched her own historic run for the White House. Chisholm was the first black woman to run for the Democratic nomination. Her campaign was divisive, as prominent feminists and black activists backed the seemingly more-electable George McGovern over Chisholm. Chisholm frequently said that she faced more discrimination for her sex than for the color of her skin. Still, Shirley Chisholm’s name appeared on the primary ballots of twelve states and she won ten percent of the delegates at the national convention.

In this clip, from a longer film called Accomplished Women (1974) (Local Identifier: 306.9028), Shirley Chisholm states that she would be surprised if there were not a woman president within 25 years.

George McGovern won the Democratic nomination and was defeated by Richard Nixon. Shirley Chisholm served seven terms in the House of Representatives before retiring to private life.

For more records featuring Shirley Chisholm, see “Unbought and Unbossed: Shirley Chisholm and the 1972 Presidential Run,” from Rediscovering Black History.

3 thoughts on “Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm

  1. Great post, Audrey! I especially love the Margaret Chase Smith material you found. Her library is the pride of Skowhegan, Maine. Thanks to Senator Smith’s trailblazing, Maine has proudly sent many women to the Senate.

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