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Hillary Clinton Stands on the Shoulders of the Female Presidential Candidates Who Came Before Her

7 minute read

Correction appended, June 9

There always has to be a first. Though she just became the first woman to clinch the nomination of either major U.S. political party, Hillary Clinton wasn’t by any stretch the first woman to run for President. Her success, as she noted in her victory speech Tuesday night in New York City, comes as she stands on the shoulders of generations of American women.

“Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone: the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee,” she said. “Tonight it really is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”

With every candidacy, the public grew more used to the idea. And the notion was furthered by Hollywood’s fixation on women in politics in the past decade, many of those characters based, in part, on Clinton. With every discussion of the sexism female candidates faced, their challenges in media, the criticism of how the looked or sounded, their difficulty raising money compared to their male rivals, their responsibility for their husband’s flaws — ground was tilled and it became easier each time for a woman to advance. With this victory, Clinton takes another of those steps. And even if Clinton doesn’t win the Oval Office this time, her candidacy has already made history, already made it easier for the next woman to run.

Women have run in at least 35 races for President since Victoria Woodhull announced her groundbreaking candidacy in a letter to the New York Herald on April 2, 1870. Considering this was 50 years before women won the right to vote, her bid was pretty astonishing. Never mind that 33-year-old Woodhull wasn’t legally old enough to become President, she won the Equal Right’s Party nomination and selected as her running mate Frederick Douglass, the renowned former slave and abolitionist leader. Woodhull, whose open marriage was the talk of New York, traveled the country promoting her platform of suffrage, “free love” and birth control. She once declared marriage to be nothing more than “legalized prostitution.”

“There is no escaping the fact that the principle by which the male citizens of these United States assume to rule the female citizens is not that of self-government, but that of despotism,” she declared in an 1871 speech. “King George III and his Parliament denied our forefathers the right to make their own laws; they rebelled, and being successful, inaugurated this government. But men do not seem to comprehend that they are now pursuing toward women the same despotic course that King George pursued toward the American colonies.” Woodhull’s revolution would be another 145 years in the making.

On June 4, 1919 — the day that Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, was born — Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment a year later, women got the vote.

“I really wish my mother could be here tonight,” Clinton said. “I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic Party’s nominee.”

It would be 45 years after Dorothy Rodham was born before America saw the first credible female candidate for President. That happened in 1964 when Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith ran for the GOP nomination. Smith, who served in the Senate from 1940 to 1973, was the first woman to serve as chair of the Senate Republican Conference, the No. 4 leadership position in the Senate. Smith rose to prominence in June 1950 after going toe to toe with Joe McCarthy of Red Scare fame. She was the first of his colleagues to condemn his methods, leading McCarthy to derisively label her and subsequent dissenters, Snow White and the Six Dwarfs. After her blistering exchange with McCarthy on the Senate floor, one of her male colleagues remarked that if a man had given that speech he’d have been the next President of the United States.

“The argument contends that I would be pioneering the way for woman in the future — to make her more acceptable — to make the way easier — for her to be elected President of the United States. Perhaps the point that has impressed me the most on this argument is that women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate — and that I should give back in the return that which had been given to me,” Smith said in announcing her candidacy. She received 227,007 votes, the most of any women until Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and won 27 delegates at the convention, denying Barry Goldwater a clean sweep.

Smith did ease the way for other women to run. Almost double the number of women would run for President in the next 40 years than in the previous 93. In 1972, New York Representative Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. In 2000, former Transportation and Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole led in many polls, but she entered the race too late and never caught up with George W. Bush and Steve Forbes’ fundraising advantage, despite leveraging her husband’s lists from Bob Dole’s 1996 bid. After seven months in the race, Dole had raised $4.7 million to Bush’s $57 million.

What money Dole did raise, 51% of it came from female donors — a rarity given that women give far less to political campaigns then men. “You could see women kind of sit up in the audience when you talked to them about women’s’ responsibility in politics and the things I would say about how much we needed women to really be active,” Dole told me for my book, Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works. “It didn’t fit because we were too late. I truly believe that. If we’d started a year earlier it could’ve been a different picture.”

In 2000, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann ran for the GOP nomination. In an interview, she told me that her proudest moment was when the Washington Post wrote that Bachmann had set a new standard in politics for always being perfectly turned out. “There was no moment during my day when I couldn’t be camera ready,” she said. Maintaining this look made napping on the bus impossible because it would wreck her hair and makeup. “For a woman, hair moves, makeup slides off your face, a nylon runs, something gets spilled on a jacket, you have to be prepared for anything,” she said.

Of course, the woman who came the closest to winning the presidency before this election was Clinton herself in 2008. She won the support of 18 million voters, or 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, as she called them in her concession speech to Barack Obama, exactly eight years ago Tuesday. She began her speech by lightheartedly referencing that one.

“It may be hard to see tonight but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now — but don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one,” she said.

Newton-Small is author of the recent book, Broad Influence: How Women Are changing the Way America Works, available on amazon.com and at bookstores widely.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of women who ran for President before Hillary Clinton. It is at least 35.


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