And Maine’s First Woman Customs Collector
The airwaves and media abound with advertisements for a hotly contested congressional seat: one candidate an established multi-term senator, the other new to national politics but with years of state legislative experience. Some liken the race to a prize fight between two heavyweight boxing champions, while others opine on the historic significance. The national media closely watches the race. Susan Collins versus Sara Gideon? Not quite. This history-making duel came 60 years ago in the 1960 election, when Democrat Lucia M. Cormier challenged incumbent Republican Margaret Chase Smith for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The 2020 Gideon–Collins race reflects a long legacy of Maine women’s leadership in national politics. When Susan Collins joined Olympia Snowe in Congress in 1996, it marked the first time two Republican women represented a state. It was just three years earlier, in 1993, that a state first had two women senators—that glass-ceiling moment went to California Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein. When Cormier and Smith squared off, they, too, made history. Their 1960 campaign was the first fight for a United States Senate seat between two major-party women candidates.
Margaret Chase Smith is well known in Maine political history. Born in 1897 in Skowhegan, Smith held a variety of jobs following high school, including work as a telephone operator, teacher, office manager, and newspaper staff-person. She married Clyde Smith in 1930, a local Maine politician who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936. Margaret Chase Smith worked closely with him as his secretary. She entered politics in 1940, taking the seat of her husband, when he died in April of that year. Smith served four terms in the House of Representatives before being elected in 1948 to the Senate, the first woman elected to serve in both houses of Congress. Smith broke many barriers in her career. Her most noted moment might have been her impassioned 1950 Declaration of Conscience speech which turned public sentiment against the conspiratorial agenda of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1960, Smith ran for her third term in the Senate. Her challenger was Lucia Cormier.
Lucia Marie Cormier was born November 20, 1909, in Rumford, to French Canadian parents David and Adele Goguen Cormier. Having graduated from St. Elizabeth’s College in New Jersey and earned a master’s degree in French from Columbia University, Cormier taught high school French and Spanish and chaired the modern languages department at Stephens High School in Rumford. She later ran Cormier’s, a stationery and office supply store. She was elected to the Maine legislature in 1947, just two years after attending a Democratic town meeting, the New York Times reported, “as something to do for an evening.” Cormier served six terms as a State Representative and in 1959 was the Minority House Leader in the Maine legislature, the first woman to hold that role. Cormier served as Democratic national committeewoman for Maine and ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in 1950. A decade later, she challenged Smith.
The national media paid attention. On August 28, 1960, the New York Times covered the “Women in Maine Vying for Senate.” Cormier, the Times noted in its coverage of the “First Such Race,” was “off to a head start in the campaigning,” as Smith remained in Washington to avoid missing a roll-call vote. (She had not missed a vote since 1955.) Meanwhile Cormier was hustling, shaking hands, giving speeches, and crisscrossing Maine in a car driven by her nephew. The short Times article, buried deep within the paper and surrounded by Bloomingdale’s advertisements for Fall fashions, reviewed Cormier and Smith’s biographies, noting their shared history as former teachers. The Times concluded that in Cormier, Senator Smith had an “able foe,” reporting that Smith herself conceded that Cormier was “the best candidate the Democrats could have put up.” To 21st century readers, the page layout of the article is ironic. The fashion ad nearby triumphed the merchandise, “Young Adventurers Conquer the Coat World”—while middle-aged women were busy conquering the world of politics.
In September 1960, Smith and Cormier appeared on the cover of Time magazine (—this remarkable cover may be viewed by going to http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19600905,00.html). Publisher Bernhard Auer introduced the politically oriented issue, noting that forty years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Time was embracing Maine’s “two hard-at-work women politicians.” Yet, Auer noted how his magazine editors “somehow still find women politicians—and women—an always fascinating, sometimes baffling and ever-changing story.”
Tacitly supportive of women’s growing role in politics, the article connected the Cormier–Smith contest to the long struggle for women’s suffrage. This struggle had culminated, the article pointed out, in “more bonnets” than ever running for office and more women likely to vote in November 1960. Election day was therefore “very likely [to] go down in history as Ladies Day.” Smith, “a cool, silver-haired, sometimes tart-tongued Republican” and Cormier, “a stocky, even-tempered spinster” offered Mainers “a remarkable choice.” The writer of the Times article finds much to praise in both candidates’ records, even while (in annoying Mad Men-era style language) undercutting their political bona fides by repeatedly referring to the women as “Maggie” and “Lucia.”
Other media outlets followed suit. The Washington Post expected a “real fur-flying political catfight.”
Smith won the election with 256,890 votes—62 percent of the votes cast. She won every county in Maine except Androscoggin, which went to Cormier with 57 percent of the vote. Smith retained her Senate seat, one of 20 women in the 87th Congress (18 in the House, 2 in the Senate).
Margaret Chase Smith served over 32 years in Congress, and in 1964 announced her run for president, the first woman to seek a major political party’s nomination. She lost every primary, but at the 1964 Republican National Convention, her supporters placed her name in nomination for president—the first woman to be so nominated at a major party’s convention. Barry Goldwater became the Republican candidate for President that year, but not by unanimous consent of the convention delegates—Smith refused to withdraw her name after the initial polling (placing fifth among candidates), and she remained on the final ballot. Smith retired from politics in 1973. In 1982 the Margaret Chase Smith Library opened in Skowhegan as a center for congressional research and education. Smith died in her Skowhegan home in 1995.
Following the 1960 election, President John F. Kennedy appointed Cormier the Customs Collector of Maine and New Hampshire, the first woman, the first Franco-American, and the last presidential appointee to hold the position. Later in her career, her title was District Director. As historian William David Barry notes on the Maine Memory Network, the position of Collector, going back to the eighteenth century, provided a “small but lucrative bureaucracy,” collecting tariffs and keeping tabs on vessels and cargo in the port of Portland. In the nineteenth century, the revenue collected provided the Federal government with a major income source. In her position, Cormier advocated for public recognition of the historical importance of the Custom House, and in 1973, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cormier retired in 1974. She died in Florida in 1993 at the age of 83.
Fellow Senator Edmund Muskie appraised Cormier’s contribution to Maine politics with these words: “Her character and wisdom contributed mightily to the emergence of our Democratic party.” Indeed—in races where multiple women run, all women win.