I have previously written about the actual first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, but her appointment was symbolic and nothing more. While there were more women who served in the Senate in these early years, these women were placeholders for either their late husbands or senators who had died. When Hubert Humphrey died in office in 1978, for instance, his widow Muriel briefly succeeded him until succeeded by a replacement in a special election. There are in truth, three women of the early days of Senate that stood on their own: Hattie Caraway, Margaret Chase Smith, and Maurine Neuberger.
On November 6, 1931, Senator Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas passed away. He had been a staunch economic and to a certain extent social progressive. Caraway voted for women’s suffrage as a representative in 1919 but he was also staunchly and actively racist. He had proposed legislation that outright prohibited blacks from joining the army and navy and introduced legislation outright mandating residential segregation in Washington D.C. His wife, Hattie (1878-1950), who was politically savvy herself, was appointed to the seat by Governor Harvey Parnell. Caraway managed to find herself a valuable ally in Senator Huey Long, who campaigned in Arkansas for her election to a full term, which she won in 1932.
Caraway was a quiet figure in the Senate who was a supporter of Huey Long and mostly of the New Deal. Her modesty was like that of her late husband, Thaddeus. In 1943, Caraway became the first woman to ever preside over a session of the Senate. However, although her status as a first was impressive for Arkansans, another impressive Arkansan was waiting in the wings: J. William Fulbright, a Rhodes scholar and former dean of the University of Arkansas who had proposed the resolution endorsing the creation of the United Nations…in his first term! The young Fulbright (39 years old) was also at this point a positive contrast to the much older Caraway (66 years old), whose lack of presence may have contributed to her defeat. The Senate would have to wait four years before they had their next female member…Margaret Chase Smith.
Margaret Chase Smith
In 1936, Clyde Smith, a conservative Republican who had opposed the pro-KKK wing of the state GOP in the 1920s, toppled Democratic incumbent Edward Moran in Maine’s 2nd district, one of the few bright spots for the GOP that year. However, Smith had been quite a ladies man in his day and his health was crashing and burning due to his undiagnosed syphilis. He had suffered a heart attack in his first term and ultimately his wife, Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), assumed more and more of his duties as his paid secretary. By 1940, it was clear he was dying. Smith died of a heart attack on April 8th of that year at the age of 63, but not before issuing a public statement the day before endorsing his wife should he die in office. She won the election to succeed him, and the newspapers of the time ran with the headline, “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington”.
Many wives upon succeeding their husbands were expected to serve the remainder of the term and then leave the work to another man. Not so for Margaret Chase Smith, who had begun a long career in national politics. She established herself as a moderate but her foreign policy, although internationalist, was also very strongly anti-communist. In 1948, Smith easily won election to the Senate, making her the only woman in the chamber throughout her entire career. Unlike Caraway, Smith was outspoken and in 1950 she condemned the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor in her “Declaration of Conscience” without naming him per Senate rules. She refused to limit herself to women’s issues and specialized on military affairs. Nonetheless, Smith repeatedly supported the Equal Rights Amendment and had sponsored the 1945 proposal and strongly supported pay equality for women. In 1963, she was one of nineteen senators to vote against the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a position normally held by people significantly to her right, such as Barry Goldwater. This resulted in speculation of a “Goldwater-Maggie” ticket in 1964, but she had presidential aspirations of her own. In 1964, Smith became the first woman to run for the nomination for president in one of the two major parties, and at the Republican National Convention she finished second. However, the state was growing more Democratic as the 1960s wore on. In 1960, the state had voted for Richard Nixon, but in 1968 the state voted for Hubert Humphrey, possibly due to the presence of popular Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie on the VP slot. The difference can also be seen in the Congressional delegations. The 1960 election elected three Republicans to the House and Senator Muskie was the only Democrat, but by 1968 the situation had reversed: Senator Smith was the only Republican representing Maine. In 1972, popular Congressman William Hathaway, a liberal Democrat, challenged her for reelection. Despite the landslide for Richard Nixon that year, he didn’t seem to have coattails for several Republican senators and the GOP lost a net of two seats in the chamber that year. Gordon Allott of Colorado lost his bid for a fourth term, Cale Boggs of Delaware lost his bid for a third term to the man who is now running for president, Jack Miller of Iowa lost his bid for a third term, and Margaret Chase Smith lost her bid for a fifth term by over 6 points.
What happened here? Well, Smith, as I wrote, was staunchly anti-communist on foreign policy and this made her a hawk on the Vietnam War. She backed President Nixon’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia in 1970 and denounced anti-war protestors, calling for them to be drafted. Smith made an appearance before a group of students that year in the wake of the killings of four students by the National Guard at the Kent State University protests that went disastrously as she seemed to require extensive notes to answer questions and then either lied or was misinformed about the presence of US troops in Laos (I find the latter more likely). This was embarrassing for the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and she beat a hasty retreat from a booing audience. Maine had changed from when she delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” in 1950, when she was the most liberal member of the state’s all-Republican delegation. In twenty years, she had become its most conservative member, being the sole Republican in a Democratic delegation. However, this would not be the end of the Republican Party’s influence in Maine politics, and indeed most subsequent Republican officeholders nationally have been politically similar to Smith.
In 1960, Senator Richard Neuberger of Oregon was terminally ill with brain cancer, and before his death he had voiced his wish that his wife, Maurine (1907-2000), succeed him. This wish was not just based on her being his wife: she was a politician herself and had made a name for herself in the Oregon state legislature for her successful push to repeal the ban on colored margarine, contrary to the wishes of the state’s dairy industry. Neuberger had even appeared, at the age of 51, at a Democratic dinner in a swimsuit next to a donkey. Although Governor Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican, was urged to appoint her, he declined and instead picked Democrat Hall S. Lusk as a placeholder, insisting on not giving any candidate the next election the advantage of incumbency.
That year she won a full term to succeed her husband, and Neuberger proved a firm supporter of 1960s liberalism. She backed the New Frontier, civil rights, and the Great Society. Although expected to run for reelection in 1966, she declined, opting to retire from politics and subsequently taught American government at multiple universities, including Oregon’s own Reed College.
In the early days of women in the Senate, they were quite the rare exception: Caraway was the only woman in the chamber throughout her whole time in the Senate and Smith was for most of her time the only one. Today, 26 women serve in the Senate.
Fitzpatrick, E. (2016, February 6). The Unfavored Daughter: When Margaret Chase Smith Ran in the New Hampshire Primary. The New Yorker.
Monthey, T. (2017, January 8). Oregon Trailblazer. PSU History Department.
Slade, R. The Moment That Presaged a Maine Senator’s Downfall. DownEast.