This morning, Carly Fiorina officially launched her candidacy for president with an online video, website, and announcement on Good Morning America. In her launch video, she states, “We know the only way to re-imagine our government is to re-imagine who is leading it,” contrasting her role as a political outsider to Hillary Clinton’s membership in the “professional political class.” However, Fiorina and Clinton share some characteristics this cycle. They both have the potential to make history as the first female major party nominees or winners in a U.S. presidential contest. But they don’t have to wait until the results come in to break another barrier for women and the presidency. With both women in the race, 2016 will be the first presidential cycle in which there is a woman vying for the nomination in each major party. In fact, the only other presidential cycle in which more than one woman was a major party primary candidate was in 1972, when Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink competed for the Democratic nomination.
Are you surprised? If not, you may be by these numbers: from 1972 to 2012, 139 men and 5 women competed in major party primaries for president. Women are 3.6% of all presidential candidates to compete in at least one primary or caucus over these four decades, a statistic made less surprising when you consider that women were only 3.4% of all members of Congress in 1972 and only surpassed 10% of congressional representation twenty years later, in 1992. Today, women make up nearly 20% of Congress. With today’s announcement, women are one-third of the declared major party contenders for president in 2016, but while the cycle is still young, it appears that the only candidates left to come forward are men.
The dearth of gender diversity mirrors the dearth of racial and ethnic diversity among presidential primary candidates for much of the same period. However, it’s worth noting the ethnic diversity among male candidates who have already announced 2016 bids, with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson disrupting the largely white class of men who have competed for presidential office, especially on the Republican side, throughout U.S. history. That diversity is noticeably lacking among the female candidates this cycle, and with a pool of just two, there is little room for improvement. Interestingly, however, two of the four women who competed in major party presidential primaries between 1972-2012 were women of color – Patsy Mink (the first woman of color to serve in Congress) and Shirley Chisholm (the first Black woman to serve in Congress), and one of the three women to drop out pre-primary was Carol Moseley-Braun, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. These women were trailblazers by definition and practice, but have yet to win much company in presidential political history.
While we celebrate this milestone of having at least one woman running for each major party nomination and consider the impact Fiorina and Clinton’s gender might have on campaign strategy (their own and that of their opponents), dialogue, and dynamics, celebrating the potential power of two women reminds us how frequently a woman in power is a class of one. Even if they are not running this year, it’s important to consider the other women who could run for the nation’s highest office and emphasize ways to increase and/or identify those women the next time around because, let’s face it, there is something to having power in numbers.