The powerful example set by a legendary female senator propelled Maine Sen. Susan Collins to strive for her own success in politics, while always remembering how her own contact with the youth of today could influence the leaders of tomorrow.
“My parents were always very active in their community and on the state level when I was growing up. Both served as mayor (of Caribou, Maine),” Collins said. “But the most powerful example growing up was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.”
As a teen, Collins was selected to participate in the United States Senate Youth Program. Since 1962, the program has selected two student leaders from each state to spend a week in Washington D.C. getting an up-close view of government at work.
It was during this event that Collins was able to meet with Smith, a Republican who served Maine in the Senate from 1949 to 1973. Smith was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and the Senate. Smith is best remembered for her “Declaration of Conscience,” a bold speech she delivered on the house floor in 1950 to express her opposition to the actions of fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“Sen. Smith spent nearly two hours in her office talking with me,” Collins recalls. “She talked with me about her service on the Armed Services Committee. She didn’t talk with me about what it was like being the only woman in the Senate. When I left her office I remember being just thrilled and thinking women could do anything.”
Collins, 55, said she recognizes that meeting was the first step toward her running for the Senate. Collins, a Republican, was first elected in 1996 and reelected in 2002 by 59 percent.
Collins says the two pieces of advice she as carried with her throughout her career are “stand tall for what you believe in” and “don’t be afraid to take risks.”
When Collins ran for governor of Maine in 1994, she attended a seminar where former U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin was speaking.
“(Martin) said, ‘A woman thinks she has to have a Ph.D. in international economics in order to speak out on trade policy. A man just thinks he has to drive a Honda.’ I think (that statement) does capture a quality that holds a lot of very talented women back: A lack of confidence in their ability to contribute.” Collins said.
Collins went on to win an eight-way Republican primary to become the first woman from Maine to win a nomination to run for governor, but she lost the general election.
“Had I not taken the risk of losing I would never have gained the experience,” Collins said.
Collins also rejects the idea that there are women-specific issues.
“The committees that I’m most active on are Homeland Security and Armed Services,” she said. “Traditionally those would not be thought of as committees where you would hear women’s voices. When it comes to the security of our country or matters of war and peace shouldn’t women be heard?”
Probably not unlike the advice Collins gleaned from her meeting with Sen. Smith. It’s a legacy Collins hopes she carries on during her regular visits to schools in Maine.
“I want little girls in rural Maine to know that they can grow up to be a United States Senator or whatever they want.”
She recognizes it’s not a hard sell in her home state where Collins serves alongside another female, Sen. Olympia Snow.
“This was really demonstrated to me when my chief-of-staff’s 6-year-old daughter asked him whether boys could grow up to be senators,” Collins laughed.