For much of American history, almost everybody treated women seeking political office as a joke. In 1940, the absurdity of a woman president was the basis of one of the largest radio publicity stunts in U.S. history — the campaign run for Gracie Allen. When asked about what she thought of U.S. debt, she replied, “Well, we ought to be proud of it — it’s the biggest in the world!” She ended up receiving thousands of write-in votes in the election regardless of the fact that her election was a spoof.
Now there’s Hilary Clinton — fawned over, hyped, villainized, admired; herself no stranger to being the punch line. While her poll numbers have fallen, she’s still ahead of any other candidate and stands a real chance at becoming the first female president of the U.S. And while that feat would be undoubtedly monumental, it’s important to consider Clinton within the context of her predecessors. It’s unfortunately easy to forget that Clinton is not the first woman to run; she both is the positive effect of years of women striving to the office and subject to many of the insults they faced. Professor Kristina Horn Sheeler, coauthor of Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture believes one of the largest hurdles Clinton will face is sexist and misogynistic language and reporting — not too different that the suffragette candidates who ran in the 19th century.
Here are some of the women who dared to make the political run before the era of Hilary. This list is in no way conclusive, but it’s a group of women who excel at the “firsts” — the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, the first female black candidate. “They have all helped pave the way for the moment we’re living in right now,” says Sheeler. “Women who ran for president because they wanted to bring attention to the issues that were important to them, regardless of what shot they had at actually getting the nomination.”
Victoria Woodhull has some serious qualifications for being one of the most interesting women in United States history. As the first woman who ran officially for U.S. presidency, representing the Equal Rights Party in 1872, Woodhull demanded to be put in the polls even before women had won the right to vote. In fact, she was confined to a jail cell on Election Day due to obscenity charges. Her obscenities? Publishing and advocating her beliefs in women’s rights to vote, control their own health decisions, and to receive equal education.
“[The] level of animosity [Woodhull encountered] was complicated by the fact that women at that point in time were simply prohibited from speaking in public,” says Sheeler. “The fact that she was speaking in public was a contradiction in terms — she was turning her back on her gender; she was acting in an unladylike and inappropriate fashion. The word that was often used was promiscuous.”
As a young woman Woodhull supported her family by working as a spiritual medium and fortune teller. She and one of her sisters eventually became the spiritual advisers to the self-made multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, who went on to help the sisters become the first female stockbrokers in the U.S. In 1870 they opened their own brokerage house and in the same year began publishing their own paper called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. Woodhull went on to be the first woman to address Congress and, in the words of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, become, “one of the few women to live out in public the principals of female emancipation and sexual freedom that were not only unusual in her day but illegal.” Described by Sheeler as a “radical female agitator” we’ll never know how many would have wanted her as president — apparently none of her votes were counted.
Belva Ann Lockwood
One of the founders of the Equal Rights Party, Lockwood ran for the presidency in 1884 and 1888. She is considered the first woman who ran with a complete, national campaign for office and once wrote to fellow suffragist Marietta Snow, “It is quite time that we had our own party, our own platform, and our own nominees. We shall never have equal rights until we take them, nor respect until we command it.”
While she was initially denied a legal education due to the fact that her presence “would be likely to distract the attention of the young men,” she went on to be the first woman admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court in 1879 after successfully lobbying the passage of a bill to require the court to admit her. When she went on to run for president — and like Woodhull, did not possess the right to vote — she advocated for family law reform, financial benefits for Civil War veterans, and the protection of public lands. Her fight for justice went on into her old age; at 75 she helped secure multimillion dollar compensation to Cherokee Nation residents who were forcefully removed from their homes. In a forward of Lockwood’s biography, fellow justice-crusader Ruth Bader Ginsberg describes her as a true advocate of “liberty, equality, and justice for all” and writes, “Her enduring legacy, however, is the path she opened for women who later followed the tracks she made.”
Born in 1930, Mitchell was the first black woman to ever run for U.S. President. In the late 1960s, Mitchell was part of a group of young activists angry over the Vietnam War and the oppression experienced by working-class black Americans. In the book African Americans and the Presidency: The Road to the White House, authors Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz write, “These activists argued that it was the capitalistic system that produced poverty, oppression, and war and therefore must be overturned.”
Mitchell’s political beliefs led her to join the Communist Party and she became a voice in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. At the time of the election she received only 1,075 votes — partly due to the fact that she only appeared on the ballot in four states.
McCormack, a Democrat, ran on an anti-abortion platform in 1976 and 1980. She did not win the Democratic nomination, however did well enough to become the first woman to qualify for Secret Service protection and federal matching money for primaries. She won 22 delegate votes and 238,000 votes in 18 Democratic primaries.
Primarily running to bring attention to her anti-abortion advocacy — most of the deferral financing money she received went towards anti-abortion advertisements — McCormack ran again in 1980 as the candidate of the Right to Life Party. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, she won 30,000 votes from three states. While some criticized her for a single-issue campaign, McCormack was popular for her outside of the Beltway position. In a 1976 New York magazine article she impassioned, “Somehow our political system must be brought back to the people, and I hope my campaign will be helpful in this regard.”
Developmental psychologist Lenora Fulani ran for the presidency twice. In 1988 under the recently formed New Alliance Party, Fulani became the first woman and first black candidate to appear on the ballot in all 50 states as a presidential candidate. Her platform included a plan to raise corporate taxes, cut the military budget, an advancing of gay rights, and free universal healthcare. While her poll standings were never high enough to get her in the televised debates, she ended the election with 225,000 votes — the highest number of votes a female presidential candidate had yet received in the general election.
She ran a less successful campaign in 1992 and went on in 1995 to help get Ross Perot’s name on the ballot in all 50 states. Fulani is a fierce advocate for third parties and has appeared in court more than ten times to advocate the rights of radicals and minorities, open the ballots to independents, and challenge third party state regulations. She is currently the co-founder and a director at the All Stars Project, where she founded a dialogue program between inner-city youth and police.
Voted "Most Likely to Succeed” at her high school, Elizabeth Dole went on to pursue a long career of public service. She was one of only 24 women to enter Harvard Law School in 1962, and went on to become the only woman how has served as a Cabinet Secretary for two federal departments under two presidents. In Woman President, Sheeler writes that when Dole announced that she formed a exploratory committee for the election in 2000, she was hailed by the media as the first female candidate who stood a real chance. When she decided to run for U.S. president she resigned as the president of the Red Cross — the first female leader of the organization since its founding by Clara Barton in 1881.
Having switched from Democrat to Independent to Republican before running for U.S. president, Dole straddled the line between courting women’s rights advocates and “family values” votes. When asked if she was a feminist, she replied, “I think if its means that you had some sort of prepackaged answers that are handed down by the political correctness club, no. But if it means that you want equal opportunity for women, more freedom for women — absolutely.” While Dole eventually dropped out of the race, she went on to become North Carolina’s first female senator and the first woman to be the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
A Harvard-educated doctor and former professor of medicine at her alma mater, Jill Stein ran as the 2012 Green Party candidate and is currently “exploring running” for the 2016 Green Party nomination. In 2012 she was on 85 percent of all ballots, qualified for federal matching points, and ran on a platform that advocated for cutting military spending in half and putting that money towards free college education for all US citizens, Medicare for all, and a “Green New Deal” that included projects such as upgrading public transit systems.
In 2012 Stein made headlines due to her arrest at the presidential debates at Hofstra University. Along with her vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala, she was handcuffed and held for eight hours after trying to enter the debates — which were blocked to third-party candidates. At the time of her arrest she told the press, “We are here at the barred gates of the American debates to say that we need to open up this debated and make it a full, fair and inclusive debate.” She ended the election with 396,684 votes, which was 0.3 percent of the national total.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, Getty Images (3)