Kennebec Tales

February 6

50th anniversary of Smith’s presidential run a bittersweet milestone

The women who were little girls when Smith was one of the Republicans in contention for president in 1964 are still wondering when they’re going to see the payoff.

The 50th anniversary of Margaret Chase Smith’s announcement as a Republican presidential candidate was met in this area with a certain amount of celebration.

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The future awaits: The someday editor (left) and historian in early 1964, around the time Margaret Chase Smith announced she was running for president.

Milliken Family Photo

After all, Smith is from Skowhegan and is one of our state’s heroes.

Her announcement in 1964 was momentous for many women, young and old — at the time, women had only been allowed to vote for president for 44 years and few had made a stab at running for president.

It’s likely, when Smith made that announcement, that there were fathers who looked at their young daughters and thought, possibly for the first time, that their little girl could be president some day.

I was three months away from my third birthday when Smith announced. My sister, Liz, was two months from her fourth.

I was seven years from being told I couldn’t be a school crossing guard because I was a girl, eight years away from being told I couldn’t play Little League baseball for the same reason.

Liz wasn’t as inclined to bang her head against concrete walls, and took the more subtle approach. With a thirst for knowledge and the innate belief that knowledge is power, she was about a year and a half away from getting her first in a decades’-long streak of straight As.

Both of us were a decade and a half from graduating from Augusta’s Cony High School and getting bachelor’s degrees from a college that in 1964 was still eight years away from admitting women.

She got a Ph.D. in history and is a college professor. I got an advanced rock ‘em, sock ‘em newsroom degree, working my way up to the job I have now.

And yes, we had a world more opportunity than our mother’s generation.

Which makes it even more notable that no woman has gotten any farther in a presidential run than Smith did in 1964.

Notice I haven’t called it historic.

Smith became one of the first women to bring delegates — 27 — to the convention of a major party, thereby putting her name in the hat for the nomination later that year. But Barry Goldwater, with 883, won the nomination on the first ballot and Smith was quickly a footnote.

Don’t take it from me. Ask the one with the Ph.D. in history.

Smith’s run for president and her convention presence “in terms of women’s history does not rank as a major breakthrough,” Liz said this week.

“Nothing came from it. Nothing, as far as a woman being nominated, has happened since. Hillary Clinton came the closest, and that was, what? 44 years later.”

Before the fine citizens of Skowhegan start forming a protest march to my door, let Liz finish.

She’s taught women’s history — as well as “men’s history” — at the college level for more than 20 years. Smith definitely has her place. “I talk about her congressional career and her stand against McCarthyism, that was her historical significance.”

Just so you don’t think this is a Milliken-girl gang-up, I asked Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, to weigh in, too.

Fitzpatrick points out Smith still made her mark by “challenging her own party to find a place for her candidacy.”

She says the time was ripe for Smith’s move.

“There were, to be sure, many signs of restlessness regarding women’s place in America,” Fitzpatrick said by email this week.

President John Kennedy had appointed a presidential commission on the status of women, which delivered its report in October 1963. The report, The American Woman, “focused attention on the issue of inequality in the workplace and the need to expand opportunities for women,” Fitzpatrick said.

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