So. There’s an upcoming presidential election in the United States, and, well, it is going to be kind of historic: either we will be driven off a cliff by fragile white masculinity incarnate (Donald Trump), or a woman will be “allowed” to win (Hillary Clinton), though I’m not entirely convinced that James Madison didn’t hide this secret clause in the Constitution:
As pretty much every thinkpiece ever has said, you have very valid reasons for not supporting Hillary/White Feminism, you have very valid reasons for uniting the party behind “Never Trump,” and, yeah, you have reason to be mad at the sexist criticisms of her. But most of all, when it comes to potentially electing Hillary, one thing is inalienable: IT’S HISTORICAL, PEOPLE.
Because non-white/cis/straight/male/Western history is considered “elective” in history curricula, and so we’re often not taught about the women pioneers in this country, it’s probably difficult to appreciate such potential history. But the idea of women in politics remains important, and it also remains inherently radical.
Even as their roles have evolved, women have faced issues unknown to men: they’ve been warned of trespassing outside their “God-given” domestic spheres; made wary of the conundrum of too bossy/not assertive enough leadership; faced an overall lack of trust in women and their decision-making abilities; fought the double-standard expectation of likability in women; lived with gendered media coverage; and they’ve learned to accept the general obsession with female appearance and beauty. It has been, to say the least, a long journey on the way to Hillary being nominated to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
This breakdown of that journey comes with some caveats: obviously many other countries, nations, and tribes have had women as presidents, as head monarchs, as empresses, as military leaders, etc. Even in America, Native women were embracing female leadership and matriarchies long before white societies, and for most of the suffrage movement, Native and black and immigrant women were completely left out.
That’s not to say that women accepted their status: they’ve fought through decades of protest, of being the daring “fringe” candidates, of sexist media smearing, of firsts (and thankfully, some seconds and thirds), of representation across parties, ideologies, race, ethnicity, class, and geography. One thing they all had in common: they didn’t care what anyone else thought, and never stopped in their collective campaign to run the world. Hillary, you have this history to thank. And it’s plenty of history.
1872: Victoria Woodhull Becomes the First Woman to Run for President
Born Victoria California Claflin, Woodhull was a woman’s suffrage activist who ran on the Equal Rights Party Ticket in 1872. Having come from rural Ohio, she was born to an illiterate mother and a father who was a conman, and was the seventh of 10 children. She only had three years of formal education, but she and her sister became first female stockbrokers and opened up a brokerage firm on Wall Street. With the money she earned, she launched a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, with her first husband. They published the first English version of The Communist Manifesto, and wrote about sex education, free love, women’s suffrage, short skirts, and licensed prostitution.
When she eventually ran for president in 1872, she nominated Frederick Douglass as her Vice President, which seems cool, except that he didn’t really participate. The idea was to ease tensions after the 15th Amendment passed, which while basically nulled through absurdly restrictive voting “requirements” at the polls, in theory granted black men the right to vote. It was also a big deal because miscegenation laws were still in effect (and, you know, lynching was built on the completely flipped national mythology of black men as a risk to white women), and yes, that is not how the vice presidency works, we know, but it was an issue.
Ultimately, the press completely went after Woodhull for her stance on “free love,” aka historical polyamory of the non-Mormon variety. She said that women should be free to leave the awful marriages that they were socially and legally trapped in back then, thought that women should have to consent to all sexual encounters, called out the double standards of the public’s tolerating men who had mistresses but not women who did the same, and advocated for the legalization of prostitution. She actually said this publicly:
To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence.
This woman is lowkey my hero, but doesn’t it make you a little sad that we have barely progressed on these issues since she spoke on them? And in 1872, no less, when she was actually arrested days before the election with her sister and second husband for publishing “obscene material” (it’s pretty much impossible to find anyone who published what the offending material was, for obvious reasons), which also unfortunately prevented her from attempting to vote for herself.
Unfortunately, her historic run has an asterisk: technically, her presidential bid may not be considered legitimate, as Woodhull would not have been 35 by the time of her inauguration, so she couldn’t have been president anyway, but she also ran in 1884 and 1892. She had a very Joan of Arc approach to her presidency, believing she was destined by prophecy to be the president. If only.
1884 and 1888: Belva Ann Lockwood Runs (More Officially) for President
One of the first female lawyers in the United States, Lockwood ran on the ticket for Victoria Woodhull’s Equal Rights party and was the first woman to appear on official election ballots. She was raised on a homestead in Upstate New York and was the daughter of a farmer before marrying another one at age 18. When her husband died of tuberculosis, Lockwood put herself through school and practiced law to support her daughter. (Yes, we’re still in the nineteenth century, and no, no one was supportive of this.)
Though she was running as a third party candidate, and only received about 4,100 votes in the end, critics (misogynists) still came after her. Newspapers called her “old lady Lockwood,” lamented that her presidency would bring “petticoat rule,” and men would even throw Anti-Lockwood parades. The admittedly dedicated trolls (who did a lot more than tweeting) would take to the streets and wear these things called Mother Hubbard dresses to protest, a garment which has its own unique sexist, racist, colonialist history in Polynesia.
After the election, she continued to practice law and advocate for suffrage.
1920: Edith Wilson Takes Over for Woodrow Wilson
After arriving home from the League of Nations (to negotiate the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty to end WWI), then-President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.
While, theoretically, Wilson could have defected to his Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, his wife, Edith, decided to take over for him instead, acting as president while her husband healed. She would later clarify, however, that she merely helped him do his job, facilitating communication and deciding what was worthy of her husband’s attention.
“I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” she wrote later, “and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.” A statement I’m sure followed by the biggest wink ever.
One Republican senator said she was “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.” In her memoir, Wilson she called her role a “stewardship.”
1920: Suffrage for Women!….Kind of
After so, so many years of campaigning, protests, food strikes, harassment, and fighting— formally since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention —finally, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, which states:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Ha! Not really. First off, Congress was not very well-versed on the difference between sex and gender (still isn’t). SECOND, this was totally a lie, because women of color still didn’t get to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And Wilson himself was a Ku-Klux-Klan-endorsing misogynist, who only pushed for the amendment’s ratification because he needed women to keep supporting the war. (Thank God for Edith.) After this progressive inch forward, shocker, there was a huge surge of anti-feminist sentiment.
1932-1962: Eleanor Roosevelt Trailblazes for Women in Politics
This whole slideshow could be dedicated to how much Eleanor Roosevelt did as First Lady, how she changed the position from glorified hostess to active political campaigner, even her post-White-House life. She became her husband’s most trusted advisor and influencer in office, was heavily involved in civil rights activism, embarked on huge tours to visit WWII soldiers, held an unprecedented 348 press conferences over her 12 years as First Lady, and then served as a U.S. delegate to the UN General Assembly and significantly contributed to the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights.
According to historian and novelist Robin Gerber, “Eleanor was encouraged to run, starting as early as 1940,” but felt that the country wasn’t ready. Gerber added that “Eleanor was deeply insecure. She found all the personal attacks on her very painful. She felt as if she’d been through enough.” Be that as it may, she showed America that bitches get stuff done: and America noticed, with her approval rating reaching 68 percent in 1940.
1940: Gracie Allen Trolls Everyone
In the meantime, interestingly enough, the seeds of Trump may have been sewn with the publicity stunt campaign of Gracie Allen, thought up by her and her comedic partner/husband, George Burns. The two embarked on a whistlestop campaign where she played up Marilyn Monroe-esque I’m-pretending-to-be-a-dumb-lady gaffes like “I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease Bill, but if we owe it we should pay it.” She allegedly got an endorsement from Harvard University.
1964: Margaret Chase Smith Becomes First Woman on Major Party Ticket
Margaret Chase Smith actually has quite a few parallels with Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt, as she got her start by running for the House of Representatives after her husband suffered (and eventually died from) a heart attack. He said, “I know of no one else who has the full knowledge of my ideas and plans or is as well qualified as she is, to carry on these ideas and my unfinished work for my district,” and she won the seat in 1940, and would go on to become the longest-serving female Republican senator. She supported FDR’s New Deal, she staunchly opposed McCarthyism, and after winning a Senate seat in 1938, became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
When someone asked her why she deserved the Senate during the election, she said, “Women administer the home. They set the rules, enforce them, mete out justice for violations. Thus, like Congress, they legislate; like the Executive, they administer; like the courts, they interpret the rules. It is an ideal experience for politics.”
In 1964, she announced her candidacy for president, saying, “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.” She lost all of the primaries, eventually losing to Barry Goldwater (who lost the general election to Kennedy), but nonetheless was the first woman to have her name nominated for a major party’s presidential ticket.
1965: Voting Rights Act Passed, NOW All Women Can Vote
Support wasn’t strong for the Voting Rights Act until the Kennedy assassination swelled support for the bill. (Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded him, used the fact that JFK had introduced the bill to get it passed). Although keep in mind that LBJ had problems of his own. Basically, just watch Selma.
1968 and 1972: Women Lead Tickets for Communist, Then Socialist Workers Party
It might not come as a huge surprise that Charlene Mitchell would end up in politics, given that she was already organizing sit-ins by the time she was 13 at the Windsor Theatre in Chicago. Later, she was one of the leaders of the movement to free Angela Davis, and became one of the most influential leaders of the Communist Party USA (which she’d joined at only 16). She ran on the party’s ticket on 1968, and was the first black woman to do so. Unfortunately, she only gained ballot access in two states, but continued her activism throughout her life. She would become increasingly interested in Pan-Africanism and reforming the Communist Party post-Soviet Union.
Four years later, Linda Jenness would run as the Socialist Workers Party candidate, achieving ballot access in 25 states. Unfortunately, she was significantly weakened when it was revealed she didn’t meet the age requirements to be president, but still won 83,000 votes. Quite a long way for a secretary from Atlanta.
1972: Shirley Chisholm Comes to Slay; Becomes First WOC to Run for President
It seems incredibly difficult to do any kind of justice to Shirley Chisholm, who was just so fearless and tough and was too under-appreciated for her time. In fact, I definitely can’t do justice, so watch Shola Lynch‘s short documentary on her if you can.
But in short: Chisholm was everything: the first major-party black candidate for president, the first black female elected to Congress (where she would serve seven terms), and a proto-Bernie with her campaign’s slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.” (She’s also quoted saying that “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”) She was born in Brooklyn to Caribbean immigrant parents, and grew up for part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother before returning to the U.S. Though she earned her MA at the Columbia University’s Teachers College, she later served on the New York State Assembly.
When she announced her candidacy in 1972, the odds were against her: She didn’t have a lot of money to spend on the campaign (albeit before the days of Citizens United, but bills are bills), and the media wouldn’t regard her as anything more than a symbolic figure. Of course, she faced sexism and racism and misogyny, and was annoyed at the “black matriarch thing,” saying, “They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back.” She even needed a bodyguard, as there were three confirmed threats on her life.
Chisholm also said she ran “in spite of hopeless odds … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” Still, she came up against even more significant opposition, unable to get ballot access in more than fourteen states. She still earned an admirable vote count in the California and North Carolina primaries, where she finished in fourth and third place respectively. Chisholm was also able to get some of the women from the then-powerful feminist organization, the National Organization of Women (NOW), to run as delegates for her, including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. In the end, she only got 2.7 percent of the total Democratic primary vote.
Afterward, Chisholm continued to serve in Congress, advocating for better quality of life for inner-city residents, criticizing the draft and America’s involvement in Vietnam, and called for better treatment of Haitian refugees during Carter’s administration.
“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination,” she said. “Perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
1976: For a Brief, Beautiful Moment, Barbara Jordan Almost Becomes Jimmy Carter’s VP
While by the time of the Democratic National Convention future president Jimmy Carter seemed set on his running mate, Walter Mondale, black leadership within the party tried to put forth other options. One of them was Barbara Jordan, a Houston-born senator, formerly a lawyer and professor at the Tuskegee Institute, and the DNC’s keynote speaker that year. She was also the first known lesbian to ever serve in the Senate (though she wasn’t out at the time). Jordan refused the nomination, but received 17 votes anyway. Mondale won by over 2800 votes, but Jordan went on to have an illustrious political career nonetheless: she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, expanded certain freedoms granted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and was almost nominated for the Supreme Court under Bill Clinton, but her health prevented this.
1976 and 1980: The Peace and Freedom Party Gets Its Act Together Before All Y’all
Begun as a left-wing party to oppose the Vietnam War in 1967, The Peace and Freedom Party was way ahead of its time. In 1976, it endorsed Margaret Wright, (and her VP, Benjamin Spock on left), who technically ran on the People’s Party Ticket. Wright worked as a shipyard worker during WWII (she was a Riveter), and later founded Women Against Racism, which was a community organization in her hometown of Watts, Los Angeles. In the next election, Maureen Smith was The Peace and Freedom Party’s candidate, running with Elizabeth Cervantes Barron. In 2003, she and her husband worked to eradicate voter machine fraud (actually a thing). Now, PAFP is less rad and forward-thinking, their more recent candidates being Ralph Nader and Roseanne Barr.
1984: Geraldine Ferraro, the Original Selina Meyer, Runs on Walter Mondale’s Ticket
Geraldine Ferraro came into the House of Representatives in 1978, having been the underdog in New York’s 9th Congressional District in Queens. She often avoided staunch political sides, running as a “small ‘c’ conservative,” and eventually supported abortion rights, which went against her Catholic upbringing. When Walter Mondale and his team were vetting vice presidential nominees in 1984, the idea of a woman was popular, and Ferraro eventually made the shortlist of five. Upon accepting the nomination at the DNC, she said, “The daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for vice president in the new land my father came to love.”
While initially she caused a bump in support for Mondale, Reagan was still a strong incumbent. Worse, media coverage soon turned against her: she was often accused of foreign policy ignorance, and on Meet The Press, she was actually asked, “Do you think that in any way the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” One study found that around 40 percent of media coverage used gendered language when discussing Ferraro.
What ultimately finished Ferraro were investigations into her and her husband’s finances, which turned out to be a little shady. The whole thing became a mess, as some accused those who’d gone after her finances, a supposedly “genderless” issue, of ethnic stereotyping due to Ferraro’s Italian-American heritage (and she’d been the first Italian-American to run as a major presidential candidate). On the other hand, the campaign took a huge hit that it couldn’t afford, and Reagan won in a landslide.
A messy federal investigation, Senate race, and Crossfire career later, she vigorously threw her support behind Hillary Clinton in 2008, although expressed hope that Sarah Palin would give a good example for young girls as well. “Every time a woman runs, women win,” she said. Ferraro passed away in 2011 from pneumonia.
1985: EMILY’s List, Which Funds Women in Politics, Is Established
Emily Malcolm and 25 other women (among them Barbara Boxer and Ann Richards) formed a pro-choice political action committee to elect women to office. Their name is an acronym, Early Money Is Like Yeast, i.e. “make dough.” In 2012, 80 percent of the women backed by EMILY’s List won their seat, although in 2014 the total was only 42.5 percent. They’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, and again this year.
1988: Lenora Fulani Runs with the New Alliance Party, Gets Ballot Access in All 50 States
Lenora Fulani and New Alliance Party Founder Fred Newman envisioned their party as one that would unite groups marginalized by the electoral process, such as people of color, the LGBT community, and/or women, and had socialist leanings. Fulani became the first woman to achieve ballot access in all 50 states, and received 250,000 votes. She ran another, albeit less successful campaign in 1992.
1992: Hillary Clinton Considered “Two Presidents For The Price Of One” in Bill’s Campaign
Although some would inexplicably be threatened by this, a strength of the 1992 Clinton campaign was the idea that Bill’s real second-in-command, Hillary, was just as qualified to be president as him (see later slides). In the words of one CBS affiliate reporter, Ruth Ezell, “When Bill and Hillary Clinton were students at Yale Law School, they were moot court partners. Ever since, they have been a personal and professional team. If Hillary Clinton becomes First Lady, you can expect she will reinvent the role and America will get two in the White House for the price of one.”
There were whispers of a similar strategy when the Harvard- and Princet0n-educated Michelle Obama joined her husband on the campaign trail, but they chose not to pursue it.
1996, 2000, and 2004: The World Is Still Not Ready for These Fabulous Lady Candidates
Elvena Lloyd-Duffie and Monica Moorehead both ran in the 1996 election, for the Democratic and World Workers Party respectively. Duffie came out with an impressive 90,000 primary votes in the five states where she had ballot access, but lost to an incumbent Clinton. Moorehead, who while she was still in high school distributed newspapers for the Black Panther Party, later became a school teacher and joined the WWP, a communist party which had been founded in 1959. In the general election, Moorehead only received about 30,000 votes, but ran again in 2000 and 2016.
Elizabeth Dole, yes, wife of that Bob Dole, who also served as a senator from North Carolina, as well as the Secretary of of Transportation and the Secretary of Labor under Reagan and the first Bush, respectively, ran for the GOP nomination in 2000.
Finally, Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, also known as the only black female senator to have ever served in Congress, ran briefly for the Democratic nomination in 2004. After finishing third in the D.C. primaries, however, she dropped out and endorsed Howard Dean.
2008: Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente Form First All Woman of Color Ticket
A special shout-out to the Green Party feels necessary here: Yes, they’re a third party, but one of the most notable third parties, probably the biggest one so far to feature a ticket with two women of color. And since they started having presidential campaigns, there have always been women (usually non-white ones) on the ticket: Winona LaDuke (with both Jewish and Ojibwe ancestry) ran twice as Ralph Nader’s vice president, Pat LaMarche ran as David Cobb’s vice president, and their current ticket is headed by two women as well.
In 2008, McKinney, who served six terms in the House of Representatives, was a frequent advocate for Hurricane Katrina victims, and frequently spoke out against the Gulf and Iraq Wars, ran a campaign that made the whole “Look How Diverse We Are, Electing A [White] Female Or Black [Male] President” spiel look even worse than it already did. McKinney reminded voters that they could (and should) elect women and black candidates. She picked journalist and community activist Rosa Clemente as her running mate, eventually earning over 161,000 votes, about 0.12 percent of the total election.
Also 2008: Well, This Happened.
In terms of women running for major political parties, 2008 was an historic election, and admittedly an historically sexist one. Studies found that Clinton received far less positive political coverage than Obama, and another analysis found that Palin’s “gender, appearance, and family status were disproportionately mentioned in her coverage, and such mentions tended to dampen public opinion about her.” It was obvious enough to turn into this classic SNL sketch, which did not appear to improve things.
2012 and 2016: Jill Stein Heads Green Party Ticket
Once again, when Americans were excited last year about the historical prospect of the first female or Jewish president, they had a candidate who was both of those things in Jill Stein. She first ran in 2012, criticizing Obama and Romney for their positions and political decisions regarding the environment and the 2008 financial crisis. In the end, she received almost 470,000 votes, the most for any female general election candidate up to that point. This year, she’s polling at about 7 percent in the general election.
And Here We Are.
I don’t know what happens next, guys. You tell me.