143 Years of Women Running for U.S. President

On Sunday, April 12, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her candidacy for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Clinton will likely be joined soon in the pursuit of the presidency by a Republican woman, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. This is a good moment to reflect on the women who have blazed a path toward the White House and the potential for a woman to take the oath of office in years to come.

Clinton herself is an important piece of that story. She was the first to win a presidential primary, and she won more votes (18,000,000) and more delegates (1010) than any unsuccessful presidential primary candidate in history. She was only the second woman (after Shirley Chisholm) to have her name formally placed into nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, and she left the campaign amidst speculation – now validated – that she would run again in 2016.

But Clinton is far from the first woman to have offered herself as a potential president. Two women became candidates for the presidency in the nineteenth century, even before they could cast ballots themselves. Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884 were both nominated as presidential candidates by a group of reformers identifying themselves as the Equal Rights Party. As the first woman to practice law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lockwood knew what it felt like to stand alone, and she did so again in her second presidential bid in 1888.

It wasn’t until 1964, 76 years after Lockwood’s second bid, that Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine became the first female candidate to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party convention, winning twenty-seven delegate votes from three states. Eight years later, in 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first African American to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a Democratic National Convention, winning 151.95 delegate votes.

Between 1987 and 2003, three women – Democrat Pat Schroeder (1987), Republican Elizabeth Dole (1999), and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (2003) – put their names forward as presidential contenders, but all stepped off the trail before the first primary votes were cast. In 2012, Republican Michele Bachmann left the campaign trail 24 hours after placing sixth in the first Republican primary.

In 2007, Ruth B. Mandel described the legacy of the women who ran for presidency in this way:

They made a claim on public awareness by attaching voices and living images of accomplished woman leaders to the idea that one day a woman could conceivably be president. Their actions made the idea less outrageous to conceive.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment as she conceded the Democratic primary, telling the crowd,

You can be so proud, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.

Still, the presidency remains arguably the most masculine office in the land – presenting obstacles well-understood by the women who have run. As she fought to allow women to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago, Belva Lockwood said, “The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents.” While women have (slowly) worked to establish a precedent of women running for major party presidential nominations, despite the cracks in the glass ceiling referenced by Clinton in her concession, our generation has yet to set a precedent of a female commander-in-chief.

As we anticipate the potential history women candidates may make in 2016, Presidential Gender Watch will be an expert source to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in the presidential election. Stay tuned for news, analyses, and resources that will contribute to the gender dialogue in this year’s race.