Cover image for No place for a woman : a life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith
No place for a woman : a life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith
Sherman, Janann.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
ix, 298 pages, 6 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm.
Reading Level:
1610 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E748.S667 S54 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E748.S667 S54 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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No Place for a Woman is the first biography to analyze Margaret Chase Smith's life and times by using politics and gender as the lens through which we can understand this Maine senator's impact on American politics and American women. Sherman's research is based upon more than one hundred hours of personal interviews with Senator Smith, and extensive research in primary and government documents, including those from the holdings of the Margaret Chase Smith Library.

Author Notes

Janann Sherman is an assistant professor of American history at the University of Memphis.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Drawing upon Smith's congressional papers and more than 100 hours of interviews, Sherman (history, Univ. of Memphis) beautifully explores the ambivalence surrounding this woman, active in national politics from the 1940s to the 1960s. For many years the only woman senator, Smith was a longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and an advocate for women's presence in the military. But in her 1948 campaign, she released a statement that said she was "a champion for the women" but "no feminist" because "a woman's viewpoint should of any emphasis on feminine interest." Sherman writes a clear narrative, covering the bases without getting mired in detail, of the life of this idiosyncratic but iconic political figure. A fine biography that will appeal to both scholars and general readers.ÄCynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Sherman's biography of Margaret Chase Smith traces the political career of the representative and senator from Maine as it explores the gender issues related to her many years of public service. The biography is written in a style that is accessible to most adult readers, although some background in American history and politics would be helpful. Sherman (Univ. of Memphis) attempts to explain not what Smith did but why she did it, and generally succeeds. Like the other two recent biographers of Smith, Patricia Ward Wallace ( Politics of Conscience: A Biography of Margaret Chase Smith, CH, Mar'96) and Patricia L. Schmidt (Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention, 1996), Sherman met and interviewed Smith, discusses gender, points out Smith's strengths and shortcomings, and is mostly praiseworthy. Sherman's study contains the most detailed analysis of Smith's legislative work. It is a worthwhile examination of the difficulties for a woman in the House and Senate in the mid-20th century. It could benefit from a stronger overall conclusion; instead, Sherman leaves readers with Smith and others commenting on her career and impact. All levels. C. A. Kanes; Maine College of Art



Chapter One A Sense of Place Although she resided for thirty-six years in the environs of Washington, D.C., Margaret Chase Smith never considered any place but Skowhegan, Maine, home. The eldest of six, she was born Margaret Madeline Chase, to a barber, George Emery Chase, and his wife, Carrie Murray, on December 14, 1897, three years before the turn of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ideological and cultural homogeneity of this small town, she acquired a strong regional identity and a keen sense of her own capacities. Skowhegan was central to her understanding of the world.     Legend has it that settlement began at the place where Abnaki Indians speared salmon jumping the granite falls of the Kennebec River. They called the spot Skowhegan, "the place to watch." Long an agricultural town, after the Civil War Skowhegan harnessed the Kennebec for manufacturing. Massive mill buildings sprang up beside the river, producing oilcloth, shoes, lumber and wood pulp, pulled-wool and textiles. Soon woolen mills took a commanding lead, employing more than thirteen hundred of Skowhegan's five thousand people at the turn of the century. Logging and pulp mills were close behind, fed by pine from the forests of northern Maine, delivered by the convenient conveyer belt--the river. The height of town prosperity spanned the first two decades of the twentieth century. Skowhegan boasted the greatest number of manufacturing enterprises of any incorporated town in Maine in 1910, but by the late 1920s, its star began to fade, further dimmed by the Great Depression from which its manufacturing base never recovered.     During Margaret's childhood, Skowhegan rang with the sounds of a self-important town rushing headlong into industry. Piercing factory whistles punctuated the screams of silver saws, the clop of horses' hooves, and the rumbling of four trains a day through town. From the river came the thump and crash of logs striking one another as they thundered and tumbled on the current to the shouts of "river rats" goading them along.     In summer, the tangy smell of the river mixed with the strong clean fragrance of freshly sawn boards and the acrid odor of dyes and acids from the textile mills. Warm summer evenings would find the streets as busy as day, until the nine o'clock bell called "children to come off the streets and ... callers to begin to make their adieus." The Fourth of July was the centerpiece of summer. The day began with an eight o'clock salute to the flag, announced exactly on the hour by six steam whistles--four town fire alarms and two Maine Central locomotives--and the bells in every church and school steeple. "The din was simply glorious." Band concerts, fire drills, logrolling exhibitions, kids games, feats of daring, and a giant parade crowded the day.     Fall slipped by in riotous color, a gay gift before the long monochromic repose. When the sharp winds of winter arrived, the river skimmed over with gray glass and thick blankets of snow muffled village sounds. The thermometer dropped to zero and stayed there; the river snapped and boomed as it froze. The Kennebec transformed into a glistening skating rink splashed with brightly colored snowsuits and trailing mufflers. Upriver, teams of horses and men, their breath changing to icicles, mined "Kennebec diamonds," clear blocks of ice packed in insulating sawdust to cool next summer's lemonade. Springtime brought ice-out and freshets, when the river ran unrestrained and wild through the north country. Eager to move the winter's accumulation of fallen trees, woodsmen pushed thousands of them into the churning water where "they reared their ends sleek and wicked, looking for trouble." They came "roaring down the Kennebec, going over the falls and filling the valley with thunder and white flowers."     New buildings with turn-of-the-century facades decorated Skowhegan's short main street. Prosperous years built impressive white stone banks and brick office blocks, broad boulevards of turreted Victorian homes. Quiet elm-shaded streets with more modest dwellings extended north and east, harboring a largely working-class population, most of whom claimed English or French-Canadian ancestry. Skowhegan prided itself on having "a class of people who work in the factories and yet are permanent residents of the town," about three-fourths of them owning their own homes. At the same time, the village retained its agricultural connections. The 1911 town inventory found 798 horses and mules, 84 colts, 681 cows, 35 oxen, 254 cattle, 867 sheep, and 300 swine.     This provincial hamlet was home to the familiar time-honored Mainer: laconic, shrewd, frugal, contrary, pragmatic, and often brutally honest, with a stern morality that comes from hard times in hard climates. Skowhegan was a town where common sense was valued over intellect, simplicity over ostentation, the familiar over the novel, the insider over the outsider--where aphorisms embroidered on parlor pillows admonished idle children to work hard, play fair, stand on their own, tell the truth, cherish God and country, and obey the Golden Rule.     Margaret's maternal grandfather, born Lambert Morin in 1843 at St. Georges, Quebec, Canada, came to Skowhegan as a child, probably as part of the massive emigration following a dramatic drop in Canadian wheat production. French Canadians fled south along the Canada road from Quebec to Skowhegan, dragging wagons, carts, and "slides" (a sort of buckboard called "slague" in French). Many arrived "in extreme destitution ... [with] their numerous children and scanty household goods." Most settled in a farmer's unused pasture north of town that came to be derisively called "Little Canada."     At some point, Lambert Morin changed his name to John L. Murray. For much of his life, it was difficult to be a French-Canadian Catholic in Maine. Reluctant to assimilate, linguistically and religiously separate from their neighbors, French Canadians were objects of prejudice, hostility, and sometimes, violence. The mid-1850s were years of extreme nativist agitation throughout the Northeast. In Maine, xenophobia found expression in a series of ugly incidents involving the burning of Catholic homes and churches, and in one case at least, the stripping, tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest.     Murray, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, and his wife, Marie Boulette, reared three children. He built a small six-room clapboard house and barn at 81 North Avenue on a quarter acre in "Little Canada," where his daughter Carrie and all of her children, including Margaret, were born.     Margaret's paternal ancestors, Aquila and Thomas Chase, settled in Fairfield, Maine, in 1771, homesteading along the Kennebec River about six miles from Skowhegan. Her father's father, John Wesley Chase, was a fairly prosperous civil engineer living on the family claim, a large farm house and 125 acres, when he was called to service in the Civil War. Upon his return, Chase became a Methodist minister and apparently his resources deteriorated as a result. He died of pneumonia just a few months past his fortieth birthday, leaving his wife, Margaret Nolan Chase, with four children and a mortgaged farm that she soon lost to the Fairfield Savings Bank. Her youngest son, George Emery Chase, barely three years old when his father died, left school early to seek his fortune in the West. Finding none, he returned to central Maine. While working as a headwaiter at the Hotel Coburn in Skowhegan, George married Caroline Morin (Murray) in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, October 25, 1896, and the couple moved into her father's house. Margaret Madeline, named for her paternal grandmother, was born one year later. Shortly thereafter, George moved his wife and daughter into the Hotel North in Augusta, where he again worked as headwaiter. When that job ended, the family returned to 81 North Avenue, where their son Wilbur was born in 1899 and another son, Roland, in 1901. Venturing on their own again, the Chases lived briefly in Shawmut, a nearby community where George tried his hand at barbering. Roland, barely a year and a half, died of pneumonia, and eight months later, Carrie bore her fourth child, another son, Lawrence. The business failed and the family came back to Skowhegan. More tragedy followed. Lawrence perished of childhood dysentery in 1906--never to celebrate his third birthday. After that, George and Carrie lived out their lives on North Avenue, and until John Murray died in 1922, he lived there with them. Built for a smaller family, the house at 81 North bulged with three adults and four children. After two more daughters, Evelyn and Laura, arrived in 1909 and 1912, the doors banged constantly as children ran in and out. Privacy was nearly impossible.     MCS fondly remembers her grandfather, the owner and patriarch of the house, as a man of principle and frugality. Family legend celebrates these traits, including the cautionary tale of how Carrie, despite his strong opposition, quit high school to work in the shoe factory. Since she was employed, her father required her to pay $5 a week in board. He deposited the money in the bank and, on Carrie's wedding day two years later, presented her with the $500 she had paid him. Another story has Margaret, as a child, unable to pronounce the word "grandpa," calling him "banker" instead. "Banker" deposited fifty cents of his salary every Friday of his life. He died leaving a remarkable estate of more than $10,000, including the North Avenue property.     George resumed barbering in a three-man shop downtown, but within a short time went into business for himself, adding a single-chair barbershop to the house. Income from this small enterprise was sporadic, sometimes not enough to cover the Chase budget, because George was frequently incapacitated with migraine headaches and the alcohol he used to deaden the pain. The close quarters and money troubles caused considerable tension between the two men. While the older man was seldom confrontational, preferring a place on the periphery of the family circle, George could not forget that he lived in John's house. Religious discord may have also been at least a minor undercurrent. Carrie and her father were Roman Catholic; George was the son of a Methodist minister. Particularly when he was in pain, or when he had too much to drink, George's temper flared and he lashed out at his father-in-law. Liquor, Margaret noted in her diary, made her father "ugly and hot-tempered."     Often called upon to mediate between her husband and father, Carrie Chase was the strength of the family. While rearing six children, Carrie frequently worked at menial, physically demanding jobs: waiting tables at the Hotel Coburn, clerking at the Green Brothers' 5-and-10-cent store, and sewing shoes as a "fancy stitcher" at the Skowhegan shoe factory.     When her two young sons died, Mrs. Chase earned the money to pay for their headstones by taking in washing and ironing and selling milk from the family cow, delivered by Margaret every morning to a neighbor. Everyone in the household helped, but Carrie depended most on her oldest daughter--her only daughter for twelve years until Evelyn was born. Largely because of the differences in their ages and their mother's other occupations, Margaret acted as an "assistant mother," caring for her younger siblings and arbitrating their disputes.     When old enough, Margaret took jobs to help out. Some eighty years later, MCS still vividly recalled her experience as a temporary domestic for a large local dinner party. For seven hours work, serving and washing dishes for one of the more "prominent" families in Skowhegan, she earned the miserly sum of thirty-five cents. After that, she looked for other ways to earn money, sometimes helping her mother wait tables at the Hotel Coburn, sometimes working for local merchants during the Christmas rush. "We were poor, I guess," MCS allowed. "We always had warm clothes and enough to eat, but we had none of the frills that a lot of families had." Hard work, thrift, and self-sacrifice were the primary lessons Margaret learned at home. Among the very few books she could remember having read, her grandfather's set of Horatio Alger stories were her favorites, she said, for they "had a good philosophy all through them." Margaret absorbed the lessons and believed in the possibilities. She did not know yet what she wanted to be, only that it should be other than her mother's life of self-sacrifice.     Desiring independence and money of her own, twelve-year-old Margaret applied for her first "real" job at the Green Brothers' 5-and-10-cent store; she was, however, too short to reach the highest shelves. In a story that has become part of the Margaret Chase Smith legend, Margaret returned a few months later, demonstrated her increased height as well as her persistence and determination, and won the position. She immediately purchased a life insurance policy so her parents would be compensated if anything happened to her. Unlike her father, who "never gave a darn for his opportunities," MCS believed that she was most like her mother and grandfather, supposing it was "in the genes. They had more drive." Neither of her sisters nor any of her peers worked for wages beyond occasional babysitting jobs. "They didn't have ambition like I did," she recalled. Her siblings chose conventional lives, leaving them in roughly the same social class in which they began. Margaret's energy and drive would lead her in a very different direction.     As much as anything else, her mother's example kept her in school. Along with nearly half the girls in her class, Margaret took the commercial course through high school, acquiring a girl's best assortment of marketable skills: shorthand, typing and office etiquette. The feminization of office work in the 1910s and 1920s provided an avenue of social mobility for working-class daughters like her. Pink-collar work had more pleasant surroundings, if not higher salaries, than industrial jobs, and allowed young women to associate with people of a higher social stratum. The pinnacle of such a career was to be a successful man's secretary, or better yet, his wife.     Although school and her job kept her quite busy, Margaret did find time for her passion: basketball. Sports provided a safe outlet for her competitive impulse. During her freshman year in 1912, Margaret became a member of the first Skowhegan High School girls' basketball team. Decked out in their billowy knee-length black serge bloomers, pleated white middy blouses, and black silk kerchief ties, the team played all across central Maine. In her senior year, when the Skowhegan girl's team won the state championship, Margaret was their captain. After graduation, she hung on to her association with the team, becoming the coach for the 1918-19 season and sometimes, in later years, refereeing. Recalling her participation, MCS applauded sports for developing "good-looking girls," not just pretty faces, but girls who were "healthy, well-proportioned and well-poised, with good personality and good sportsmanship attitude." Sports, then, enhanced a girl's social and moral, as well as physical, development. Success in basketball boosted Margaret's self-esteem, taught her poise and self-reliance, and two other important lessons: "that one receives about what they [ sic ] give and that one side only can win."     Individual dating was rare in her band of friends. Usually they would gather at someone's home for card parties, recitations, home musicales, jigsaw puzzles, or fudge-making parties. Margaret's circle included her best friend, Pauline Bragg, and two fellows she favored: Bob Merrow, who frequently walked her home and visited with her on her front porch on summer evenings, and Harry St. Ledger, then captain of the football team, who usually took her to the movies--his father managed the Bijou Theater.     During her graduation year, Margaret fervently wanted to join her friends on their senior class trip to Washington, D.C., but she needed to raise the enormous sum of $60. When she gingerly approached her grandfather, the "banker," for the money, he treated the matter as a business deal, requiring her to sign a note to repay him at 6 percent interest. Money in hand, and refusing to think about her financial obligation, she excitedly embarked on her first trip away from home. The young people and their chaperones took the train to Fall River, Massachusetts, then a boat to New York City, where they caught another train to Philadelphia, then still another to Washington. After seeing the monuments they had read about in school, the students had a chance to mingle with the rich and important, visiting with a variety of Washington dignitaries and joining their congressman, John Peters, at the White House to shake hands with President Woodrow Wilson.     MCS's memories of that trip illustrate her assumptions about status and her eagerness to improve her own. While in Washington, the group visited with the Coburn-Smiths, one of the most prestigious Skowhegan families. Dr. George Otis Smith, then head of the U.S. Geological Service, and his wife, Grace Coburn Smith, niece of Skowhegan's only Maine governor, were parents of Charles, one of her classmates. The rich trappings of their home and their formal social etiquette impressed young Margaret: "This was an experience for most of us who did little socially." Perhaps more telling is her account of a shopping trip during which she bought a piece of heavy wool plaid fabric. She later learned this same fabric had been purchased by two other girls, "the two most attractive in the class.... They were such fine dressers that I was sure I was right in my shopping." She took such delight in learning that her taste matched theirs that she wrote about it in some detail many years later. Wealth, prominence, and in the case of women, attractiveness, defined quality and the good life.     During Margaret's last year in high school, distressing news of war began to intrude. The front pages of the weekly Independent-Reporter carried stories about the recruitment of local boys into the Skowhegan Light Infantry, Company E, Second Maine National Guard, and Margaret's commencement shared the front page with President Wilson's call-up of all state militia to fight Pancho Villa, who was terrorizing Americans on both sides of the border. Company E was on its way to Laredo, Texas. That morning, amid great excitement in town, one hundred more young men volunteered. They were gone four months; the front page of every issue was devoted to their exploits fighting the "greasers" on the border.     Their homecoming was muted. The shadow of war hung heavy. Company E was home barely half a year when President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. On the morning of April 18, 1917, the "militia call was sounded by the fire alarm," and ninety young men hastened to the armory. The newspaper captured the scene as the boys departed: To the tune of martial airs and patriotic songs and between rows of hundreds of people who thronged the station platform to see them off, Company E left Skowhegan ... amidst cheers and tears.... It was all over in a very few minutes and as the people slowly turned from the station to go back to their homes, some of which will seem very empty.... [M]any a silent prayer was offered for the welfare and safety of the boys who were going forth through unknown ordeals and hazards to fight under the Stars and Stripes. Skowhegan was at war.     Wars touch small towns more intensely; everyone knows those who participate. In the first selective draft of Somerset County, three hundred men were called up from Skowhegan; a week later, three hundred more. Margaret and her girlfriends donned white uniforms and did what they could to help at the Red Cross. When war was officially declared, the headlines screamed: "WE ARE AT WAR--AT WAR! ... We must arm! We must prepare! The call has come! Awake! Take part--and put your back into it! Arise!" War news took over the pages: lists of draft calls, exemption board news, Red Cross activities, and patriotic demonstrations. Anxious mothers shared their precious letters with the whole community. They were printed in their entirety on the front page, along with lists of the missing and the dead.     The community closely followed the exploits of a group of eight local boys, dubbed the "High School Squad," who signed up while still students. One of them was Margaret's friend, Harry St. Ledger. Five of the boys came home in uniform to graduate with their peers before returning to the war. "`Twas a sight Skowhegan friends will never forget," wrote a reporter, "these five young patriots in khaki, standing in line to receive their diplomas." Two of the five never came home again; Corporals Alvan W. Bucknam and Harry St. Ledger were killed at Belleau Wood. Skowhegan lost seventeen young men in the Great War. For her part, Margaret's adolescent experience with the pain and sacrifices of war had a profound effect on her attitudes toward peace and national security throughout her life.     Finishing her last year in high school, Margaret dreamed of attending Sargents' College in Boston to become a physical education teacher. But college seemed a distant and very expensive dream. For the past two years, she had been working nights and weekends as a relief operator for the Maine Telephone Company, for ten cents an hour or one dollar a night. Late one evening, the fabled first contact between Margaret and Clyde Smith took place. He called to inquire about the time and, as the story goes, she was intrigued by his mellifluous voice. Flirtatious calls lengthened into conversations.     Clyde Harold Smith was recently divorced, an influential businessman in the community, and first selectman of the town of Skowhegan, a position comparable to mayor. He soon offered Margaret a job recording the town inventory in the Tax Assessor's books, a three-month assignment for the lavish sum of $12 a week. When Margaret explained that she still had several weeks of school left and could not abandon her studies even for the higher salary, Clyde simply called his friend, the high school principal, smoothing the way for her to work during school days and make up her classwork on her own time.     Although his overtures were discreet, Smith began to see a good deal of Miss Chase and her family. He gave her rides home in his "low, shiny El Car which would impress any young lady," although she lived only a couple of blocks from the office. Mindful of appearances, he invited her parents along for Sunday drives and lakeside picnics. Carrie Chase regarded her daughter's suitor warily. Mr. Smith was her own age and a libertine. Margaret knew he "had a reputation for liking the girls, especially younger girls," but, despite her mother's warning, or perhaps because of it, she found him charming. He was so different from the younger boys she knew. "Clyde was older, sophisticated. I was fascinated with him." And, apparently, he with her. It was the beginning of a very long courtship.     Margaret's city job soon ran out, and she needed permanent employment to earn money for college. Smith encouraged her to go on to business school; "he didn't think much of my interest in Sargent's." When she persisted, he suggested she try teaching school. It paid a good deal less than her temporary job. Figuring $8.50 a week, less $5 room and board and $1.50 to her mother for weekends at home, it left little to begin her school fund, but she would gain experience. He called the superintendent. Margaret would "become a teacher for a time at least," as the newspaper put it, accepting the position at the one-room Pitts School, five miles from town.     She boarded with a farm couple, the Jewitts, a mile from the school. They had no indoor toilet facilities and no central heat. Neither did the school. In the pale light of early morning, she climbed the steep hill to the schoolhouse and built a fire in the stove before the children arrived. In her sailor-suit dress and flat shoes, her hair pulled into a no-nonsense knot on the back of her neck, Margaret "was as plain as was the living." On her own for the first time, she felt overwhelmed by her responsibilities. Although she had done well in school herself, she was ill-prepared to teach her nine pupils, ages four to fourteen. They were mostly poor, often underfed, and tired from early mornings of chores before school. She spent a long, cold winter huddled with the children around the wood stove in the middle of the drafty building. Trying to learn to teach as she went along, Margaret hurried from student to student, subject to subject, frustrated by her inability to teach and their apparent inability to learn.     She continued to see Mr. Smith. Most weekends he drove her back and forth between home and the Jewitts's, sometimes with a horse and sleigh when the snow was deep. Winter evenings she sat in front of the fire, listening to Mr. Jewitts's poetic recitations while she crocheted pieces for her "Hope Chest," longing for the weekends and home. After twenty-eight weeks, she had had enough. She was cold; she was lonely. Teaching was not for her; it was too difficult and unrewarding. Margaret went home. Copyright © 2000 Janann Sherman. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introduction: Double Visionp. 1
1 A Sense of Placep. 8
2 Political Educationp. 18
3 Mrs. Clyde Smithp. 29
4 On Her Ownp. 43
5 Naval Affairsp. 58
6 No Place for a Womanp. 73
7 Joan of Arcp. 90
8 A Declaration of Consciencep. 104
9 Smith versus Jonesp. 127
10 Amazon Warmongerp. 139
11 Dream Ticketp. 165
12 Leave It to the Girlsp. 183
13 The Grand Old Ladyp. 201
14 Senator Emeritusp. 219
Notesp. 225
Bibliographyp. 277
Indexp. 289