Friday, March 9, 2012

Margaret Chase Smith -- Independence of Thought

March 9 - Today's post provided by Marc Aronson

I have been thinking a lot about how we, all of us, are blinded by the beliefs and assumptions that shape our inner narratives -- how a story "just makes sense" not because it is true but because it feels true. I mention that because there is one slam dunk obvious candidate to be in any US or even world Women's History list and yet in many ways she has disappeared: Margaret Chase Smith. First, why she belongs, then I suggest we pause to think about why she is missing.

I stumbled on her because I was writing Master of Deceit --a life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, which, of course, took me into the McCarthy era. The striking fact about McCarthy is that he was so obviously a blowhard and a bully. Everyone could see that he would attack first, then worry about whether he had any evidence, any proof. But those tactics struck a nerve in a post-war America that had learned of Soviet spies (there actually were Soviet spies and they actually did real damage), which saw China turning Communist, and the Soviets seeming ever stronger in Europe. America, which had won the war and was ready to settle down to suburban life, had a creeping sense of fear -- fear perhaps of itself -- and a kind of rage: we beat Hitler, what is undermining our peace now? So even if McCarthy was half wrong, many felt, he might be half right -- and the egghead, fey, un-American, commies deserved what they got. We lived in bully land where to talk back to McCarthy was to court his rage against you. Who would stand up not merely to him but to the Texas oil barons who bankrolled his attacks on Senator Tydings of Maryland (who had dared to criticize him), to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who were feeding him secrets and even writing his speeches? Just one person: Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

Senator Smith had first come to Washington as her husband's secretary when he was elected to the House representing their native state of Maine. When he died, she took his place -- but then, running in her own right, she was re-elected to the House, serving for eight years, before she ran for the Senate in 1948 and won -- becoming the first woman in US history to be elected as a senator (others had served as replacements on the deaths of their husbands) and the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate. Right there you have one reason we should know about her -- her success in politics. But then on June 1, 1950 -- just two years into her first term -- she rose on the Senate floor and challenged the bully: This declaration of conscience belongs in our school curricula alongside the Gettysburg Address and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. For, standing alone (only six of her fellow Republicans sided with her), the only woman in the Senate, at the risk of her political career (McCarthy did work to undermine and defeat her, he failed) she stated the most basic principles of Democracy. Here are a few key lines:

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism --

The right to criticize;

The right to hold unpopular beliefs;

The right to protest;

The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know some one who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn't? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.
The right of independent thought -- that was her hallmark, just as she had worked to make sure women could serve in the military during World War II, and as she -- once again the first -- ran in Republican primaries in the Presidential election of 1964. Senator Smith lost that primary battle. She was not a perfect person -- the Red Scare of the 50s was also a Lavender Scare, in which people lost their jobs on the basis of the fantasy that homosexuals and lesbians were security risks, because the Soviets could blackmail them. Senator Smith participated in and supported hearings that approved of that policy (in fact there is not one single documented case of the Soviets gaining secrets by blackmailing people based on sexual orientation). She was a woman of her time -- as all of us are shaped by the beliefs of our times.

And that brings me back to where this post began: Senator Smith is such an obvious exemplar: a leader, a pioneer, a brave, eloquent speaker for the best principles of our democracy, the woman who stood up to the bully who intimidated the men. And yet she has, largely, disappeared from our memory. Why? I suggest that we honor her for the principle of independent thought -- a New England lady, a Republican, an individualist who insisted we all have the right to think and speak as individuals -- she is as much at  the heart of Women's History as any civil rights or labor leader. She stood for the best in American values -- you stand alone and speak your mind.

Marc Aronson, Ph.D.

Editor's Note:
Marc Aronson has a doctorate in American History and teaches in the MLIS program at Rutgers. His most recent book is Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. You may find him blogging at Nonfiction Matters.


  1. Thank you for such an inspirational post! It actually gave me goosebumps as I was reading it. Perhaps Ms. Smith can be the subject of your next book?

  2. Smith was in Congress with Jeannette Rankin in 1940 (our first Congresswoman ever, also on the Republican side of the House.) I wonder how they got along, and how Smith reacted when Rankin alone voted against entering WWII. And what Smith (a hawk) thought of the 1968 Jeannette Rankin Peace March to the Capitol by 5000 women. Both strong women of conscience!