Irony in First Women’s Lives

The first six chapters of my book on First Women are drafted and my research keeps revealing ironies that intrigue me. I thought I’d share four ironies I uncovered in three of my First Women stories.

Irony One: Nellie Tayloe Ross was the First Woman governor in the United States. She was elected in the state of Wyoming, the first state to grant women the right to vote. Before she ran for office, her husband had been governor of Wyoming. When he died Tayloe Ross was left in dire straits, due to her husband’s poor money management. She possessed no other skills, so she solved her financial problems by running for his office. Later in Tayloe Ross’ life, this woman who got into politics because of her pecuniary circumstances, was appointed by President Roosevelt as the First Woman Director of the U.S. Mint.

Irony Two: Rebecca Felton was the First Woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She was appointed by the governor of the state of Georgia, the first state to reject and fail to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote. This ironic twist, in fact, led to her appointment. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the women of the state were irate with the governor and he thought he would appease them by appointing a woman to an open seat in the Senate.

Irony Three: The state of Georgia gave us the First Woman Senator in 1922. In the 98 years since Georgia has never had another woman senator.

Irony Four: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the First Woman Senator who did not assume her husband’s seat; she won it in her own right. She was serving on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy as the witch hunt for communists began. A woman of principle, she wrote and delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” from the Senate floor. The declaration proclaimed that every American had a “the right of independent thought.” She signed the document along with six of her male colleagues. (She was the only woman in the Senate at that time.)

McCarthy was so enraged he removed from the committee. In 1997, Senator Susan Collins became the First Woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Like Chase Smith, she is from Maine.

Future Ironies? As I continue my research and writing, I will be on the lookout for more ironies. Stay tuned.

 

 

Margaret Chase Smith – Senator of Conscience

          When I featured Margaret Chase Smith as the Woman of Note on December 14, I knew she was a woman of many firsts. It was not until I researched further that I learned she was also a woman of great wisdom whose words resonate today.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 9.52.42 AM          Margaret Chase Smith lived for most of the twentieth century and was a woman of many firsts, but most important, she was a woman of principle. A lifelong Republican, she always voted her conscience and not the party line. She supported the rights of women, cosponsoring the Equal Rights Amendment in the mid-1940s, and worked to improve the statue of women in the military, but her influence was not confined to women’s issues, her state, or even her country.

After teaching school, working for a woolen company and managing business operations for a weekly newspaper, Margaret Chase married Clyde H. Smith, who ran for Congress and asked his wife to serve as his secretary. When he became ill a few years later, he persuaded her to run for his seat, with the assumption that she would resign when he recovered. Instead, Clyde Smith died, and Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman from Maine to serve in Congress. Six years later she became the first woman to serve as Senator from Maine. This also made her the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Another first came later when her seat was challenged by Lucia Cormier, the first time two women competed for a Senate seat.

Senator Chase Smith’s most important first, however, was in 1950 when she became the first Senator (not just the first woman) to speak against the Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only two years into her first term, she rose to deliver a speech entitled, “Declaration of Conscience.” The sole woman in the Senate at the time, only six other Senators co-signed her statement. After her speech, Senator McCarthy had her removed from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and replaced her with Richard M. Nixon. The speech was so significant that Robert C. Byrd, a conservative Senator from the South, included her speech in a book of 46 classic speeches given in the Senate between 1830 and 1993. (The only other woman in Byrd’s book is Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve as a United States Senator—for all of 24 hours!)

Following the speech, when President Truman came to the Capitol for lunch, he asked Senator Smith to join him. “Mrs. Smith,” he told her, “your Declaration of Conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House.” She became an informal ambassador, traveling to 23 countries, and conferring with world leaders such as Churchill, DeGaulle, Adenauer, and Chiang Kai-Shek. She interrupted her international trip to return to Washington in 1954 when the vote was called in the Senate to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy. Senator Smith later ran for President of the United States and was the first woman to be placed in nomination by a major political party.

Her Declaration of Conscience speech did not mention McCarthy by name and its message, unfortunately, still resonates today (see link below). Senator Smith lives on—and not only in her words. Her Senate seat is held today by Susan Collins of Maine, also a voice of reason within the Republican Party. And, ironically, Senator Collins is also a First Woman To. . .the first woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

LEARN MORE:

To read the full Text of her Declaration of Conscience Speech:http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/margaretchasesmithconscience.html

Biographies:  Sherman, Janann. No Place for a Woman: a life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. and Wallace, Patricia Ward. Politics of Conscience: a biography of Margaret Chase Smith

Also visit the Margaret Chase Smith Library website for a biography, timeline, awards, degrees, and more: http://www.mcslibrary.org

QUESTION OF THE WEEK:

          Does witnessing Margaret Chase Smith’s courage, inspire you to take courageous actions?