Years before Margaret Chase Smith succeeded in getting elected as Maine’s first woman senator, she was a particularly savvy congressman’s wife.

Her husband, Clyde Smith, represented the 2nd District and relied on her as his top office aide and campaign manager.

“My role was to be at Clyde’s side as his right-hand man,” she wrote years later. “I had no desire to attract attention.”

Insisting she had “never been a feminist,” Smith pointed to a 1938 speech she was asked to give to the Kennebec County Women’s Republican Club as a turning point.

Asked to talk about her social life, the 40-year-old Skowhegan native decided she wanted to convey a more serious message instead. Her husband declined to offer suggestions, telling her she was on her own.

“That was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me,” Smith said, because she wound up talking about the U.S. Navy and warned that if the country was ever attacked, it would come from the sea — prescient words three years before Pearl Harbor became a byword for treachery.

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When Clyde Smith died in the spring of 1940, his wife opted to run for the seat he no longer occupied, winning office as the first woman chosen by Maine voters to go to Washington. That fall, she defeated the Democratic mayor of Lewiston, Edward Beauchamp, to win a full two-year term of her own.

Smith, who always wore a single red rose, held off other challengers — but by 1946, a friend warned her that she’d already hit the pinnacle of her career.

“Instead of resigning myself to going downhill, I determined to go up,” Smith recalled in her 1972 book, “Declaration of Conscience.”

She decided to jump into the 1948 contest for an open U.S. Senate seat, where she insisted that voters judge her on her record, not her sex.

But her sex was, nonetheless, an issue.

The wife of one of her opponents in the Republican primary, Helen Sewall, asked, “Why take a woman to Washington when you can get a man?”

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Smith responded that the place for women is “everywhere.”

With women making up two-thirds of the registered voters she crushed ex-Gov. Sumner Sewall and two other Republicans before going on to win the general election easily, becoming the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate.

It didn’t take her long to attract attention in the Senate.

Shortly after, when a Senate colleague from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, captured the nation’s attention with a wide-ranging and almost completely fictitious assault on supposed communists within the federal government in 1950, Smith rose on the floor to denounce him.

In one of the most famous speeches in American history, Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” assailed McCarthy’s “irresponsible sensationalism.”

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear,” Smith said, words that have been repeated often in the decades that followed.

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McCarthy tried to wipe her out politically, but unlike many others, she withstood him, outlasting his crude four-year crusade and remaining in the Senate until Democrat Bill Hathaway defeated her in 1972.

In 1964, she even ran for president, losing badly in the GOP primaries. It didn’t help her that she refused all campaign donations and skipped most campaigning to ensure she didn’t miss any votes in the Senate.

Even so, she gained enough delegates to have her name put into nomination at the Republican national convention, the first time a woman had that distinction from one of the two major parties.

Though Smith championed the space program and bolstered the military during the Cold War, she recognized that “if I am to be remembered in history, it will not be because of legislative accomplishments,” but rather for speaking out to condemn McCarthy at a time when senators were “paralyzed with fear” that countering him would lead to their political demise.

It’s clear, though, that Smith, who died in 1995, will also be remembered as a pioneering woman in politics.

She remains popular enough today that the Portland Sea Dogs, in a bid to boost attendance, plan to give out Margaret Chase Smith bobbleheads at an upcoming baseball game.

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U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine campaigning for president in 1964.

* Maine leads the nation in choosing women for U.S. Senate.

* Would more women in Congress improve the current disfunction? U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and others say yes.

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