Who was on the stage in the first televised presidential debates? The answer might surprise you.

 

If you were to ask when the first televised presidential debate took place, most people would probably say 1960. That was the year that John F. Kennedy, a young senator from Massachusetts, took on Richard Nixon, Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, the truth is that the first televised presidential debate took place four years earlier, and it wasn’t between two presidential candidates, or even two men: it was between two women.

On November 4, 1956, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt debated the senior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith. Each was a powerhouse in her own right. Eleanor Roosevelt had been lauded as the “Heroine of the Convention” after she secured the Democratic presidential nomination for Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson. Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, then the first woman to serve on the Armed Services Committee after defeating Senator Joe McCarthy for the position. These two women acted as surrogates in the debate (Roosevelt for Stevenson, and Smith for Eisenhower) on the second season of Face the Nation on CBS.

Perhaps recognizing the significance on what they were doing, Smith especially made careful choices regarding her dress and tone of voice. She even insisted on having a two-minute closing statement, which we still see practiced in the debates today. Together, these two grappled over issues pertaining to foreign policy.

In her recollection of the debate, Smith recalled remaining measured in tone compared to the outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt. However, when it came time for her closing statement, she describes it as a “biting staccato.” Smith would take her experience to one of the first televised senatorial debates four years later, where she took on Lucia Cormier during her campaign for reelection.

As we get ready for the fourth Democratic debate, we should take a moment to consider the legacies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith. These two women set the precedent for what would become arguably one of the most important milestones in any presidential candidate’s campaign. Now, decades later, women will once again be some of the largest presences on the stage – this time as presidential candidates themselves.

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